Thursday, April 11, 2013
Thursday, January 24, 2013
Bonus points if you get that reference...
|"Who knows? In a thousand years, even |
you may be worth something!
Friday, December 7, 2012
Thursday, September 27, 2012
Friday, June 10, 2011
I’m sorry this is a bit late. I wanted to have it done for Thursday, but then... y’know, then I just couldn’t find a compelling reason to work on it.
Speaking of which...
I read a book a few weeks ago where the main antagonist is an ex-con. While he was in prison he found a niche market, learned about computers, and set up a nice little business for himself involving convicts still inside. It’s nothing great, but it’s completely legal, ethical, and he’s pulling in close to a grand a week for fifteen or twenty hours of work. He often ponders the fact that if he’d know it was so easy to make money legitimately, he never would’ve ended up in prison.
Which is especially confusing because at the start of the book he’s working as a one-man Brute Squad and committing murder to neaten up “any possible loose ends” for the big man who’s pulling all the strings. Much later in the book (after more brutality and further explanation of how great his niche business is doing) the antagonist finally explains that he feels he owes a debt of honor to this person he’s working for. That man pulled a few strings to help get him out of prison, after all, and he sure as hell doesn’t want to end up back in prison.
Those last italics are mine. They’re not from the ex-con who’s got a completely legitimate business pulling in a grand a week for twenty hours of work and is murdering people on the side. A guy who, it’s also been established, has no real loyalty to anyone but himself. And his business, which he’s thinking he may expand.
Sooooooo... it wasn’t really clear why this guy was doing any of the stuff we saw him doing. In fact, as the book went on his actions became less and less plausible. Especially when he kidnapped a woman so he could blackmail her husband and then suddenly decided to rape her.
Definitely the action of an ex-con determined not to go back to prison.
One of the most common things that makes a character unbelievable is when they have no motivation for their actions. We’ve all seen it. The guy who decides to pick a fight over something petty in the middle of a crisis. The person in charge who continues to ignore someone with key information. The spouse who’s just a jerk. The ninja who attacks for no reason.
Y’see, Timmy, nothing knocks a reader out of a story faster than people just randomly doing stuff. There’s a simple reason for this. In the real world, when people do things for no reason, they’re usually considered to be insane. Not an interesting insane, either, but the “lame motivational excuse” insane. If I run into a burning house to save a baby or a dog, I’m going to be considered a hero whether I make it out or not. If I run into the flaming house just because it’s there, I’m going to be considered an idiot.
People need a reason to do things. Real reasons. Reasons that jibe with their background and their personality and with basic rules of behavior. That’s why you’ve heard of people motivating horses with a carrot on a stick but not with a t-bone steak on a stick. In Raiders of the Lost Ark, it’s completely understandable that Belloq wants to open the Ark before taking it to Germany, and believable that the Nazi officers would feel uncomfortable about performing a “Jewish ceremony.” This fits with Belloq’s smarmy background and it makes sense—historically, even-- that Colonel Dietrich would be a bit by disturbed by what needs to be done to open the Ark.
So here’s a challenge for you—try to picture that scene reversed. Can you imagine if, at that point in the film, Dietrich is insistent on performing the ceremony and Belloq is saying “no, no, I really think we should just take it to der Fuhrer and let him deal with it”...? It wouldn’t make any sense, would it?
In the book I’m working on right now, a very major motive for many of the characters is curiosity. So is fear. And, after a certain point, survival. I’m not saying that everyone in the book acts rationally, mind you, but their actions fit who they are and what they believe they’re going to accomplish.
Now, sometimes the story needs people to act a certain way. It’s been plotted out and now the characters need to do this so that can happen a bit later. What some writers don’t seem to get is that this doesn’t make a character’s actions more believable or forgivable.
In the example I gave above, the reader’s given two contradictory sets of information about the ex-con. On one hand we’ve got a man determined to stay on the straight and narrow with all the motivation he needs to do it—good character building stuff. However, almost all we see him do in the book is commit acts of murder, kidnapping, blackmail, and even one breaking and entering. All this advances the plot, yes, and at a breakneck pace, but it does this by making the character less and less believable. And that really made him less and less of a threat. To be honest, I realized at one point I was actually picturing him as a cartoon. In my mind, the book had turned into a sort of high-tech thriller version of Who Framed Roger Rabbit because the only way to rationalize this nonsensical character was to turn him into something completely absurd.
Here’s one other good point worth noting. The reader has to be able to relate to the character’s motives. This is especially important for stories set in radically different cultures (Japan, for example, or India under the caste system) or perhaps in entirely fictitious ones (Barsoom, Diagon Alley, or the grim darkness of the future). While the characters might have very true and proper motivations within the context of their tale, those motivations still need to be interpreted by the chosen audience. It’s common to hit this wall in stories where the writer knows their chosen setting too well or maybe had to build their amazing world from the ground up.
People’s motivations tend to be simple. If you’ve ever seen a procedural show, they often talk about the common motives for murder. Love, money, revenge—they’re very basic ideas. The unspoken motive for the cast of these shows is justice, or perhaps closure. In Raiders, Belloq is looking for glory and maybe a bit of power (I think it’s safe to say he was secretly hoping he’d get all the benefits of that “hotline to God”).
Look at the characters in one of your stories. Follow them for a few pages. Can you explain their actions with one or two simple words? Are they words that most people will know? Do these words relate to the character and not your outline?
Then you’ve probably got some very driven characters.
Next week, a few tips from Esmund Harmsworth about mysteries—many of which can be applied to writing as a whole.
For now, hopefully you feel motivated to go write.
Thursday, May 5, 2011
For those of you who don’t get it, it’s from a sci fi movie where the characters suddenly discover they aren’t on the planet they thought they were. They (and the audience) had gone along assuming they were on planet A, only to discover they were on planet B instead. It’s a mistake that costs them dearly—they end up getting little parasitic worms stuck in their ears.
Silly as it may sound, a key part of storytelling is knowing the world your story is set in. I can tell the story of a noble knight on a quest to find the Holy Grail, but depending on the world I set it in, he can be a glorious hero (The Once and Future King) or a deranged madman (The Fisher King). We’d all frown if one of the Bourne books had him stopping an alien invasion and we’d shake our heads if Jack Reacher took on a cult of Satanists that had summoned an actual demon.
One of the biggest ways writers mess this up is to take too long to establish what kind of world they’re in. For example, they’re doing a spoof-comedy, but the first thirty pages have been completely straight. Or (on the flipside) they do establish the world and much later in the narrative try to switch that world to something else. I’ll blab on about that in a minute.
For now, consider the movie Predator. The original, with Governor Arnold, Governor Jesse, Secretary of Defense Carl Weathers, and screenwriter Shane Black.
Predator begins with the team landing in Central America and getting briefed on their mission. They head into the jungle, locate the crashed plane, find the enemy camp, and have an awesome gunfight. Then Arnold discovers that Carl set them up and dumped them in the meat grinder. They head back out for the rendezvous... and that’s when they discover there’s something else in the jungle.
We’re, what... half an hour into the film at this point?
Except... that’s not how Predator begins. If you think back, the movie actually begins with an alien spaceship flying past Earth and launching off a small shuttle/ drop pod. We’re told in the first minute of the film that this is, ultimately, a sci-fi story. We may get distracted for a bit by the hail of bullets, but when the title alien shows up it isn’t a surprise... just a bit creepy.
On the other hand, one recent book I read was 100% set in the real world. Everything about it was realistic. The basic idea was two people who had found the last notebook of a dead research scientist who claimed (in his notes) to have discovered a cure for cancer. The cure for cancer. The entire book was about them trying to figure out what the heck they had while half a dozen pharmaceutical companies chased them—all wanting the notebook one way or another. Well, in the end they escape big pharma, sell the notebook to a group of researchers for a couple million dollars, and cancer is cured across the globe.
Yep. We cured cancer everywhere in the last seven pages. Go us.
I also once saw a script that started out as a dramatic comedy sort of thing. Young woman, single mother, trying to make the best of life even though she keeps getting knocked down... we’ve all seen it a few dozen times. That was the first forty odd pages. Then, on page 44, if memory serves (almost 3/4 of an hour into the movie, mind you), we discover that the old man she just helped cross the street is actually the Easter Bunny, who decides to reward the woman with a wish for her random act of Christian charity.
That’s right. A key point in this story is that the Easter Bunny spends his downtime walking among us disguised as an octogenarian. And the Easter Bunny is all about Christian charity because... well, the brown of the chocolate and the brown of the wood of the cross... or something...
Like any other disruption in the flow of a story, it’s very jarring when a story is set up in one world and then veers off into another one. It’s like discovering that one of your main characters has actually been insane all along. It forces the reader to re-examine what’s come before, and not in a good way. In fact, more often than not, these sudden shifts in tone and world force a story into pure comedy. Again, not in a good way.
Consider this. There’s a classic Saturday Night Live skit which claims to be the famous “lost reel” of It’s A Wonderful Life. In this, just as everyone’s sitting around singing and rejoicing, Uncle Billy remembers that he misplaced the money in the newspaper Mr. Potter took. It only takes a few moments for this realization to turn the celebrating friends and family into an ugly mob, and they march to Potter’s house, give the man a mass beating, and burn his home to the ground. The End. The Simpsons did something similar with a lost final reel of Casablanca. Here Ilsa parachutes out of Laszlo’s plane to be with Rick, saving him from (and killing) Adolph Hitler in the process. The happy couple is married shortly afterwards. The End...?
No, seriously. That’s how they “ended” Casablanca, with the ellipse and the question mark. Which, as Bart points out, leaves them open for a sequel.
So just by (hypothetically) shifting the tone/world of the endings, both of these classic, award-winning films become absurdist comedies.
Now here’s a key thing to remember. You can still have a fantastic story set in the real world provided the events of your story don’t change the world. If I wage a secret battle against lizard men from the center of the Earth and at the end of my story no one knows the war happened, then the world hasn’t changed, has it?
Perfect example—Raiders of the Lost Ark. Not only does this story involve a Nazi plot to seize arcane objects across the globe, it has reputable archeologist Henry “Indiana” Jones finding hardcore evidence that God is real. Think about the repercussions that information would have. If someone went public in the 1930s with absolute, undeniable proof of God’s existence, what kind of world would we be living in today? What kind of story would you be telling?
Which is why that evidence never goes public. We’re left with the distinct impression no more than a dozen people know what Dr. Jones recovered from that island, and that he’s been well-paid not to talk about it. And the Ark... well, we all know what happens to the Ark, don’t we?
I really, really hate to use this analogy, but it is perfect. If you want to set an amazing story in the real world, you need to use conspiracy theory logic. Yep, the same reasoning used by the birthers, moon-landing deniers, and “9-11 was staged” folks is what makes for a good fiction story. How sad is that?
By conspiracy-theory logic, the lack of evidence for X is the proof that X is true. Any facts that disprove X are manufactured by the powers that be, thus further proving X is true. And if you stumble across a few coincidences that imply X is true, well, that of course is solid proof that X is true.
Y’see, Timmy, by this chain of reasoning, the untouched real world is undeniable proof the imaginary world of your story is true. Only the BPRD knows what really happened to Adolph Hitler after the Occult Wars, so it’s understandable that most of us only know the publicized version of events. There are a dozen enchantments that keep the magical world of Hogwarts and Diagon Alley separate from the real world, thus the fact that no Muggle has ever seen Hogwarts pushes the idea that the stories about it are true. Only a worthy mortal can lift the hammer of Thor (bonus points if you remember its name—offer not good after Friday), but we all know we’re not 100% worthy so we accept that we’ve never had the chance to lift it. The fantasy world doesn’t change the real world, so that fantasy world is more believable.
So do amazing things in amazing worlds. Just make sure no one finds out about it.
Next time, I wanted to rant a bit about sounding like a professional.
Until then, go write.
Friday, February 18, 2011
Structure is how a story is put together. It's the underlying shape and order that everything else hangs on. I know that sounds obvious, but every now and then you need to point out the obvious stuff. If you don't have structure, all you have is a pile. Even something as amazing as the Guggenheim follows a lot of the basics of building construction.
Which is a great example. Much like the physical architecture of buildings, there are certain rules a writer needs to follow with the structure of their story. A very skilled person can bend or tweak these rules to accomplish a clever effect, but ignoring the rules often means the story (or building) will just collapse. At the least, it’ll end up so ugly and misshapen nobody will want anything to do with it.
As I have in the past, I may use a few terms here in slightly different ways than they get used in other places. I’m mostly doing it to keep things as clear as possible, so try to think of the ideas and concepts I’m tossing about more than the label I slap on them for this little rant.
There are two types of story structure I want to blather on about. One is linear structure. The other is narrative structure. They're two separate things. If the writer is doing things correctly, they tie together in the same smooth, effortless way character and dialogue tie together.
First up is linear structure. This is how the characters in a story perceive events. Unless you’re writing a story from the point of view of Doctor Manhattan, your characters are going to experience the story in a linear fashion. Morning will be followed by afternoon, then evening. Thursday comes before Friday, which is the start of the weekend. People begin life young and then grow old. Another good way to think of linear structure is continuity. A before B. Cause before effect.
The other half is narrative structure. This is how your audience experiences the story, and it can come in a number of forms--many of which we’ll deal with next week. I just wanted you to have both terms in your forebrain right now.
So, a term some of you may have heard before is three-act structure. It gets tossed around in screenwriting a lot, but it shows up in most forms of storytelling and showmanship. Despite attempts to define it as something much more rigid and page-dependent, three act structure really just means that a story has a beginning, a middle, and an end. The beginning happens first, then the middle, then the end.
Again... every now and then you have to point out the obvious stuff.
Now, it’s key to note they may not always come in that order, but they do always need to be there. We’re going to get into that in a little bit (again, probably next week). For now, the key thing to remember is that even if these events are presented to the reader out of order, the characters are still experiencing them in order.
One easy way you can check a non-linear story is to cut it up and put the bits in chronological order, like a timetable. This is the order the characters and the world are experiencing the story (as opposed to the reader). Does effect still follow cause? Are the actions and dialogue still motivated? If everything’s right, there should be a clear chain of continuity. If it starts to get fuzzy or questionable, that's not a good sign.
Now, I’m sure the question some of you are asking is “why?” Since so many tales involve flashbacks and frames and non-linear storytelling, why does a linear structure matter? It should only matter in straightforward stories like 24, right?
Wrong again, Timmy.
As I mentioned above, linear structure is how the characters experience the story. And as I’ve said many, many times, characters are key. If they’re not grounded in a linear structure, they end up tripping over themselves. They know things they shouldn’t know yet or bear the scars of events that haven’t happened. Once it starts with characters, these flaws and oddities ripple out into the plot and there’s a notable lack of continuity. Suddenly effect is coming before cause, and B comes before A, with D between them.
A quick note for genre fans. Time travel stories get called on continuity a lot. Not in the altering history sense, just in the who-knows-what-when sense. Just remember that time travel isn’t going to affect a character’s personal linear timeline. My day four can be your day one. In the handy diagram here (developed with a $25,000,000 grant from NASA), you can see that our time traveler (in blue) has a coherent, linear story--even though it seems at odds with the story of the mundane non-time traveler (in black) who also has a linear story (no one said time travel was easy). One of the best things I can suggest for this is the third season of Doctor Who. It deals with this idea in the first episode and in two different arcs that span the entire season. Plus it’s really fun and Freema Agyeman is gorgeous, so win-win all around.
My novel, Ex-Heroes, has almost a dozen major flashbacks in it to a period before the beginning of the novel. But if you were to rip all of those chapters out and rearrange them in chronological order (go ahead, buy an extra copy just to tear it up), you’d see that the story still makes sense. The heroes appear. The zombies appear. Society collapses. The heroes try to salvage what they can and rebuild society (which is where the book begins). A new threat appears. The story itself is linear, even though it’s presented in a non-linear way.
On the flipside, I once worked on the straight-to-DVD sequel to a very popular murder mystery/ Hitchcock-style thriller (which was, in all fairness, mostly popular because Denise Richards and Neve Campbell get topless and make out in a pool). When you took many of the “hidden scenes” at the end of the sequel and put them in order, the story actually made less sense than it did without them. This film, needless to say, had horrible linear structure. The writers were just throwing down “cool” moments with no regard to where and how they actually fit into the story.
One more general note for you. When you look at the linear structure of a story, it should be very straightforward. A-B-C-D-E- and so on. If you’re looking over this and suddenly hit 4-5-6 somewhere... well, there’s a reason that looks odd there. It’s falling outside the scope of the plot. An example I’ve used before is the scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark when Doctor Jones gives a speech about Masada to the two government agents. Don’t remember that scene? Yeah, well, that’s because it has nothing to do with the story so they didn’t put it in the movie. Linear structure is a great place to see if there are extra things hanging on a story that don’t need to be there.
So that’s linear structure in a somewhat large nutshell. Next time I’ll babble on about narrative structure and, if I’m doing it right, this will all start to make sense.
Until then, go write.
Thursday, August 19, 2010
Thursday, August 12, 2010
Looks like I gotta get another hat...
Anyway, back in the day, when there just weren’t as many stories to be told, there was a very common structure to Greek stage plays. Essentially, the characters screwed up. A lot. They’d fail at tasks and get themselves in way over their heads. Just when all seemed lost, the stagehands would lower in “the gods,” one or more actors on a mechanical cloud, and the gods would use their omnipotent magical powers to take care of everything. No harm, no foul. Everybody wins.
If you didn’t already know, the name of this mechanical cloud was the deus ex machina (god from a machine). The term is still used today, although it doesn’t have the lofty implications it used to. It’s when a solution to a problem drops out of the sky.
Or, in this case, drops out of the sacred orb of Shen’nikarruan.
With the cinematic success of Lord of the Rings and the overall success of Harry Potter, fantasy is a hot genre again. Mix in a little softcore horror like Twilight and a lot of folks are probably tempted to write in that sexy-dark-mystic sort of style. Even a lot of people who’ve never had any interest in this sort of story before. Which is a shame because a writer really needs to be familiar in whatever genre they decide to write in.
A common problem beginning writers make--especially genre writers-- is to fall back on magic to solve their problems. Characters get into a load of trouble, back themselves into a corner, square off against nigh-impossible odds, but are saved at the last moment as they all lay hands on the sacred orb. It doesn’t matter how world-spanning or universe-threatening the problem is, when the pure-of-heart grab that big emerald sphere it’s all going to go away and make life so much better for the good people.
For the record, it’s not just mystic orbs. The offenders also include--
--enchanted rings, necklaces, or bracelets
--artifact X which must be returned to/ retrieved from the temple of Y
Now, before any other genre writers reading this start feeling smug, let me remind you of Clarke’s Law. You’ve probably heard some variation on it before. Any sufficiently advanced technology would be indistinguishable from magic. A writer may call it the Technotron 9000 and explain it harnesses neutrinos to bend quantum fields, but for all intents and purposes it’s just another mystic orb.
This all goes back to something I’ve ranted about many times before. No one wants to read about a problem that solves itself. They want to read about characters who solve problems, preferably the characters they’ve been following for most of your manuscript. Lord of the Rings does not end with god-like mystic flames destroying the one true ring when the heroes reach the end of their journey. No, it ends with one character all-but driven mad from the burden of carrying it and another one who was driven mad by the ring accidentally destroying it because of his obsession to possess it again. Likewise, Harry Potter never beats his final challenge with magic but just through his sheer determination to do the right thing.
Y’see, Timmy, in good stories the sacred orb of Shen’nikarruan isn’t a solution, it’s just a MacGuffin. For those not familiar with the term, Alfred Hitchcock coined it to describe things that motivate plot and story without actually interacting with them. The Maltese Falcon (in the book and movie of the same name) is a classic MacGuffin. It’s what motivates almost every character in the story, but the legendary statue itself never even appears.
Now, as I often point out, this isn’t to say a magical plot device will never work. If you think about it, Raiders of the Lost Ark has God step out of a box at the last minute to kick some Nazi ass (and save Indy and Marion). Take a moment, however, and think of how many other things in that movie have to work perfectly in order for that ending to work. It’s a level of storytelling most of us--myself included--never have a prayer of reaching.
Which actually brings me to a potentially touchy angle, but one I feel obliged to point out. So if you’re easily offended, you may want to stop reading now...
There is a nice little niche market of faith-based films these days, and a few well-paying contests as well. In these stories, it’s completely acceptable to have prayers answered and problems solved by divine intervention. Heck, it’s almost expected in some of these markets. The Lord steps in to cure diseases, cast out evil spirits, and sometimes even make a personal appearance. At the very least, he’ll send down one of the archangels to help that nice woman who couldn’t pay her mortgage to the evil capitalist developer.
The thing is, despite the previous example of Raiders, “God saves the day” really isn’t an acceptable conclusion to a story. In those niche markets it’s fantastic, but for every other audience it’s just as much a cop-out as the magic orb or the Technotron 9000. The characters aren’t solving problems or doing anything active. In fact, they tend to be innately passive while they wait for the big guy to solve things for them. Which makes sense, because these faith-based stories usually aren’t about the characters, they’re about a religious message the writers are trying to get across.
Again, nothing wrong with having magic, uber-technology, or even divine intervention. But this isn’t ancient Greece. These days, it has to be about character first.
(I had no idea how I was going to end this, and then the archangel Beleth pointed out that I could just bring it back around to the opening idea...)
Next time, I’m going to drop names and prattle on about the time I talked with Hawkins from Predator about storytelling. Yeah, the skinny guy with the glasses. Him.
Until then, go write something.