Tuesday, December 30, 2008

The Year in Review

So, we’ve all been at this for... what, a couple months now? Well over a year since I made that very first post, by my count. Of course, I took some time off so I can hardly point the finger if you did, too.

Anyway, let’s not nitpick. There’s not much time before the New Year and we’ve got important stuff to discuss.

What have you written so far?

I don’t want you to talk about what you’ve planned. Not interested in any great ideas you’ve had. Don’t care who you had lunch with, what clever software you bought, or what fascinating research you’ve done.

The question is, what have you written?

Easy question, right? How many words have you set down on paper? How many new Word documents or Final Draft files have been created on your computer since you first looked at this half-witted, rambling set of rants I call a blog?

At the end of the day, this is the first marker you have to pass if you want to be a writer. You have to write.

If you’re still getting around to it, playing with a few things, or trying to find the right time when you’re in the right mood—you’re not a writer. You’re one of those folks in the coffee shop who wears a beret, puts on a fake accent, and loves to tell anyone who’ll listen about how everything put out by Hollywood and the big publishers is complete crap and, oh, the fantastic work you would share with the world except there’s no one else as brilliant you to understand it.

Okay, you’re probably not that bad...

Stop and ask yourself, though. If you keep looking here and you haven’t written anything... why not? What’s been holding you back? What are you waiting for? Because believe me, it never gets any easier. If you can’t find the resolve to even get started, do you really think you’re going to be able to keep at it long enough to finish a novel? Or a screenplay? Heck, even just a short story?

Again, what it all comes down to is the writing. If you want to call yourself a writer, you have to write. That’s it. Not just talk about it. Not buy books or software to help you do it. It doesn't even count if you read ranty blogs about writing.

The joy of this little failing, though, is it’s easy to fix. Just go sit down at your desk and write. That’s all it takes.

In the past year or so since I started taking this collection of rants somewhat seriously, I’ve paid the rent by writing a few dozen articles for Creative Screenwriting (including one about comic book movies I was pretty happy with). I got to interview a bunch of heavyweight filmmakers like David Goyer, Kevin Smith, and Zack Snyder. I also did a bunch of film and DVD reviews (and let me save you the trouble—Scorpion King 2 is just not worth it. Don’t sink to that level. You deserve better, seriously).

I’ve also written four short stories, two of which are being published next year in two separate anthologies. At the moment I’m working on two more which are both past the halfway mark.

I placed in three different screenwriting contests with my script Reality Check. It’s sort of a sci-fi, metafiction, comedy film. With giant monsters and spaceships. And enough genre references to make a geek’s head explode.

And there was the novel, Ex-Heroes, which was written in its entirety this year. It started out as a mild rant to a friend and then mixed with a few superheroes I’d made up back in high school. I got the contract from the publisher today, and if all goes well it’ll be on book shelves, Amazon, and Oprah’s reading list sometime next year.

Oh. And I managed to post here two or three times a month pretty faithfully. Well, until the eggnog showed up and productivity dropped to a crawl.

Now, granted, I’m in that lucky small percentage of folks who does this full time, but really there’s no real excuse for not writing. Stephen King wrote Carrie while he was teaching high school. David Goyer wrote his first screenplay while he was fetching coffee and making copies as an office PA. Clive Cussler started his long-running Dirk Pitt series (Raise the Titanic ring a bell?) while he was doing ad copy.

We must write.

Make that your New Year’s resolution. A page a day. Just one page. A mere two hundred and fifty words if you double-space. If you can write one page a day, you’ll have a short story by the end of January, a screenplay by the time May rolls around, or a solid novel this time next year. All that, out of just one measly page a day.

Happy New Year to all nine of you reading this.

Now go write that page.

Monday, December 15, 2008

It’s Mister Haversham, the Carnival Owner!!!

Most everyone loves a good mystery. Some people like having the puzzle to solve as the clues are doled out one by one, or perhaps as it becomes apparent they were sitting out in the open all along. Other folks love getting the big twist they should’ve seen coming, but the writer managed to slip it past them. Solving mysteries makes people feel clever, a good part of the reason this storytelling form has survived for well over a century.

A great example of the mystery story and structure is Scooby-Doo. No, seriously. In the classic series, it wasn’t unusual for Scooby, Shaggy and their pals (anyone mentioning a much later “puppy power” add-on to the cast will be banned from this blog) to go off somewhere and encounter a ghost, a haunted deep-sea diving suit, or even a reanimated mummy seeking its magical coin. However, as the story progressed, clues would be found, motives revealed, and what seemed eerie and impossible at first began to look more mundane and plausible. In the end, it wasn’t too much of a surprise to finally find out the reanimated mummy was really Doctor Najib in a costume, trying to steal the coin so he could sell it to a collector.

That’s the point of a good mystery. When all the pieces fall into place and everything makes sense. Readers (and agents and editors) love that beautiful moment when all the clues line up and they can look back over the story and say “Ahhhhhhh... I see.”

Now, here’s the one real catch, in case you missed it. Just having someone speak cryptically doesn’t cut it. Neither does deliberately withholding a ton of information from the audience. Nor do piles of weird occurrences or clues which don’t seem to mean anything but your characters treat like the discovery of the Dead Sea scrolls. If you want your story to have that cool, odd air of mystery that makes people wonder and question and remember your story...

Well, you need to actually have a mystery.

A fairly common flaw I see is writers trying to convince readers there’s a mystery going on in their story. They don’t actually have one, mind you, but they know Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie became famous with them, plus shows like LOST and movies like The Prestige got people talking. So these writers will have an aloof man in a trench coat who drops one-line, indecipherable comments. An unusual reference that keeps cropping up again and again throughout the story. Sometimes (wooden as it sounds) just a character who keeps repeating lines like “What does that mean?” or “Who are you?” or “I don’t understand!”

Again, there’s no actual puzzle, just the implication there’s one the reader can’t see. The best sign of this is that nothing is ever solved or revealed—the story is just an ongoing series of empty, random events attempting to evoke a sense of mystery.

There needs to be something behind the words on the page, even if it’s something your readers don’t immediately get to see. When Velma, Shaggy, and Scooby find that smear of white paint on the wall, they and the audience all need to believe this is something important and not just a randomly inserted MacGuffin the writer stuck in to fill a few script pages. As the writer, you need to know what that smear of white paint means long before those meddling kids even see it.

In my oft-referred-to work The Suffering Map, the character of Bareback often talks in a deliberately vague, roundabout way. He also subtly displays a knowledge of future events. When the full workings and history of the Polynecronious Transporter are explained, Bareback’s prescience suddenly has an eerie logic behind it, and his earlier, obtuse way of speaking now makes sense. It’s a mystery, but it’s a real mystery.

What you want, as a writer, is to be a magician rather than a con artist. The magician shows you empty boxes and hats, a cage full of rabbits and a deck of cards. Then he or she does something amazing with it and you know they’ve done something amazing. Maybe you even have a vague sense of how it was done, even if not a complete understanding. You’re left feeling thrilled and excited.

The con artist, though... when he or she shows you those empty boxes it’s for a very different reason. It’s because they don’t really have a trick, and they’re hoping they’ll never have to show you something in the box. They’ll just take your money and you’ll be left standing there waiting for something to happen. They’re the ones who know the truth of what’s going on will just annoy their audience.

It sounds silly, but if you want your story to have a mystery, then it needs to have a mystery. It has to be smart. It has to be hidden for a reason within the story. It actually has to mean something.

If it isn’t... you’re just another con artist.

And we all knew what happened to the con artist at the end of Scooby-Doo.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

A Scary Observation

Sorry for all the time off. Holidays, work, all that.

Where did we leave off...?

Oh, that was it. Writing.

So, Clive Barker once noted (in the beginning of Weaveworld) that stories can only ever have an arbitrary beginning. We may chose, as storytellers, to pick up the threads at a given point, but all the elements had a history long before then. Our characters had childhoods and went to school (or maybe were grown in a lab and computer-educated). The locations had previous tenants. The objects passed through dozens of hands before they got to the ones we’re focused on. No story ever truly begins right where we start telling it.

In a similar way, very few stories end at the point we stop telling them. The Hardy Boys grow up and possibly die, as do Nancy Drew, the Three Musketeers, Hannibal Lecter, and Sherlock Holmes. John Carter of Mars doesn’t, but that’s a story all in itself. That house is still up on Haunted Hill, there’s at least two videotapes floating around of that girl in the well, and the Lost Ark is just tucked away in a warehouse somewhere (in Arizona, if you believe that last movie).

The point that I’m getting to (in my all-too-often rambling way) is that this observation relates to horror, and types of horror. And you could probably apply it to other types of stories as well.

Consider the Japanese horror story (sometimes called J-horror or Ju-On horror). It’s been noted by many folks that in a Japanese horror movie... you’re pretty much just screwed. There’s no way out, no escape, no way to avoid it. That hunchbacked, gray-skinned little girl or boy is going to crawl out of something, somewhere and kill you. Horribly. There is nothing you can do, no ancient rite or exorcism or magic crystal that will save you. In Japan, once you step in the haunted house you’re as good as dead. And the moral lesson there is... well, don’t go in haunted houses.

In American horror, however, you can get away. Go ahead and step into the old house. Spend the night. Have sex there as a teenager, with multiple partners. Smoke some weed and get drunk. Heck, pee in the corner and desecrate those Native American remains you found in the closet. In the United States, there’s almost always a priest or rabbi or librarian or somebody who knows what happened there and what needs to be done to stop it. And in the end, they’ll save you, probably halting the unspeakable evil from the dawn of time while they do.

Simply put, Japanese horror takes place in the middle of the bigger story. These are the folks who die gruesome deaths so, years later, the Americans can come along and solve the problem at the end of the story. The Americans look back at the awful things that happened to the Japanese, don’t repeat the same mistakes (well, most of them don’t), and then bring the ancient (or relatively old) evil to an end.

So, fascinating as these ruminations are, I’m sure some of you are wondering... What’s the point of all this film-school level hypothesizing?

The point is simply this. If you know where your story fits in the bigger framework—the bigger story—it’s much easier to work out what does and doesn’t need to happen in it. It’s simpler to figure out rough character arcs or general motivations, and you’ve got a better idea of what kind of ending you should be aiming at.

Now, I’d never suggest plotting all this out. It does work for some people, I don’t happen to be one of them. Maybe you are. Maybe you aren’t. However, just knowing the general area you’re aiming for—the specific kind of story you’re trying to write—is a huge step in the right direction. It keeps you from flailing around and wasting time with that Jesuit priest, or retrieving that exorcism book, or even doing major character development on someone who... well, who’s just screwed because they had the bad luck of stepping into that haunted house. Probably while having sex and wearing a red shirt or something equally dumb...

There’s nothing wrong with just sitting down and starting to write. Heck, several times here I’ve encouraged it. But when you do, in the back of your mind, just try to keep track of what happened before the events you’re telling, and what may happen after them. It can only make things stronger.

So, with that in mind, get back to writing.

And for God’s sake, do not step in that haunted house...

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Staying Focused

One of the contests I was reading for recently is not anonymous. That means quite often I could see the screenwriter’s name on the script he or she had submitted. And the next script they submitted. And the one after that. And the one after that.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with multiple submissions, but what struck me was how many of these people were consistently just above average. Not enough so that they’d make the next cut, but enough that you could see a seed of actual talent. Alas, none of them bothered to focus or polish that talent—they just pounded out a screenplay and then moved on to their next idea.

On a similar note, I visit a few message boards run by different publishers. It’s not unusual to see people talking about their latest trilogy or the epic series of novels they’ve written over the past year. They haven’t even sold their first book, mind you, but they’re already working on the fourth or fifth sequel.

Now, logic and statistics would seem to tell you that multiple manuscripts means multiple chances to advance. Which would be true if getting a screenplay or story selected was just random chance. Granted, with some of the stuff in theaters and on shelves these days, it’s understandable that people would think random chance was a major factor...

The reality is, out of more than a dozen screenwriters I saw who submitted more than one script to the above-mentioned contest, only one went forward to the next round. And did so with both of his scripts.

One writer out of fourteen (to make it simple) is a little over 7%.

Those are not great odds.

There’s a publishing fact I mentioned a while back, and I personally think it holds with screenwriting as well. Only one out of 100 people who call themselves writers ever finish something. Yep, out of all those folks who are working on a novel or beating out a screenplay on the weekends, only 1% of them will actually produce a completed manuscript.

So if you’ve got the enthusiasm and ability to write over 2000 pages of anything a year, you have a better-than-average shot at making it as a writer. Probably not a Stephen King/ William Goldman/ David Koepp level writer (there’s only room for so many of them), but there’s a definite chance of you being published or produced.

So, here’s a suggestion. Next time you’re thinking of multiple submissions to a magazine, a screenplay contest, or an anthology, stop and count them up. For every additional submission you plan on making, put your favorite manuscript through another draft. Don’t just run it through the spellchecker and call it a draft. Take your time and do it right. Then submit it, move on to the next one, and repeat.

For example, if you were planning to submit four screenplays to a contest (not as unusual as you’d think) take the main one and take it through three more drafts. Look at some of the random hints and tips I’ve posted here over the past few months. Go through your manuscript and tighten up dialogue. Then get some feedback, go through it again, and cut a bunch of those excess words. Maybe triple-check all your spelling line by line or polish your characters on the third time through.

Once you’ve done all that, submit it. Then look at the second script. Well, there are still two more past that, so this one has to go through two more drafts. Tighten. Polish. Feedback. Cut. Check. Submit. Repeat.

Now, I can already hear the low rumble of complaint. How’s the writer supposed to get all this done in time for the contest? Script number four’s never going to make it in time. Heck, there’s a chance script number two won’t even be done in time. Following this advice means most of the other scripts won’t make it into the contest.

That’s right. They probably won’t.

The point here is to focus your efforts. You don’t want to submit a double- handful of rough drafts. Quantity is not the key here, quality is. You want to put out a single, polished, meticulousy-revised manuscript that you know beyond a shadow of a doubt cannot be improved. If you had the time to submit four mediocre, second-draft scripts, what you’re really saying is you have time to submit one phenomenal one.

So go write. Write a lot. Just try to focus some of that writing.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Maybe We Can Fix It In Post...

So, last week I gave a rant that was mostly designed for the novelists and short story writers who regularly look here (all three of them). This week I thought I’d put something out for all the would-be screenwriters who’ve become loyal followers of this blog (both of you).

The rest of you... I have no idea why you keep coming here.

Over the past few months I read scripts for three different screenwriting contests. Two of them are fairly well known. I’m not sure of the exact number, but I probably read well over 200 screenplays in that time period, and I was just helping out part-time.

Seeing this many scripts is, in some ways, a wonderful learning experience. Not only did I get to see the same mistakes made again and again and again (thus reinforcing the fact that I will never commit the same mistake) but I also got to see the entire review process through the eyes of a reader and share my thoughts with other people on this side of the line.

That being said, two important things to remember as I go into this list...

First, readers are human. They generally have to read about a dozen scripts every day (The Stand by Stephen King has fewer pages than a single day’s worth of feature scripts), and they’re usually only making fair to average pay doing it. They get frustrated, they get bored, and they will make snap judgments even when they’re trying to be as fair and impartial as possible. Every time you make it easier for them to render that judgment—one way or the other—you’re doing them a favor.

Second, reading scripts is not about mining for gold, it’s a weeding-out process. For most readers, the job is not to find the best of the best, but to clean away the worst, the barely-adequate, and the mediocre for the higher-paid people above them.

As an additional side note, I’ve determined a simple truth I call the 50% rule. It holds for screenplay contests, and I bet it also counts for anthologies, job applications, and blind dates.

If you take any body of submissions, about half of them will have no business whatsoever being there in that group. These are the submissions where the reader knows by page two there’s no point in turning another page. Maybe it’s because they submitted a western to a sci-fi contest, or vice-versa. Perhaps there’s a 120 page cap and it’s a 200 page screenplay. It could even be handwritten in crayon. One way or another, when you look at the odds for a contest, remember that half those people aren’t even going to be your competition. Or, awful as it may sound, you won’t even be theirs.

Here’s ten of the most common reasons why.


Yeah, can you believe I’m harping on this again? When I first wrote the “Contest Beat” column for Creative Screenwriting (recently resurrected as “Eyes on the Prize”) I interviewed dozens of contest directors and asked each of them what were some tips for aspiring entrants. Across the board, the answer that every one of them gave was spelling and grammar.

Now, a random typo is not going to sink your chances. We all make mistakes, and readers know that, too. If I’m going through your script and there’s a typo on every page, though... Heck, there were a few screenplays I looked at where I wasn’t even thirty pages in and I’d lost track of how many there were.

Whenever you hand off a manuscript you’re trying to convince the reader that you are an advanced writer. You’re ahead of the average Joe or Jane, someone who can do more with words and letters than just sign their name, send a text message, or scribble a shopping list. The absolute, bare-bones basic tools of writing – any writing-- are spelling, grammar, and vocabulary. If you aren’t a master of the basics (you, not your word processor’s spellchecker), how can you hope to do anything advanced?

Apostrophe S

You could argue this goes under typos, but to be honest it’s in a class by itself. Messing up an apostrophe S will stand out on the page like a flare. There is no worse mistake you can make. Seriously. None. As I said above, we all make mistakes now and then, but it’s obvious when a writer’s just throwing down random apostrophes and getting a few right by sheer chance.

Knowing the difference between a plural, a possessive, and a contraction is past basic—it’s a fundamental part of the English language. Stop writing, go get some grammar books like Eats Shoots & Leaves or even just the MLA Handbook and actually read them. Promise yourself, as of this moment, no more guessing or taking wild stabs in the dark. A real writer has to know how apostrophe S works.

Excess Title Info

You would be stunned how many scripts were submitted to these contests with things like MY TITLE—crap draft right on the first page. One didn’t even use the crap, but a more vernacular form. No, I’m serious. Sometimes they’re in the file name with electronic submissions, which is also a bad time to see MY TITLE—(other contest’s name) Submission. Even just plain old MY TITLE—1st draft. Only your first draft? And you thought it was ready for a contest? Well, okay... I guess that’s better than the script that was copyrighted back in 2001 and probably hasn’t been changed since...

Don’t give a reader any reason to prejudge your script. Strip off any and all draft numbers or extraneous comments to yourself before you send it out. I’ve got over a dozen screenplays to read today, and honestly, if you’re going to hand yours off and tell me it’s crap right up front... well, you’re saving me some time, thanks.

The script is about a writer

Seriously, you would not believe the percentage of scripts that are about novelists or wanna-be screenwriters. Out of 150 scripts I read for one contest, nineteen of them had writers as a main character. That’s almost one out of every seven--over 14% of them! They were all awful and not one of them advanced.

Not to sound harsh, but no one cares about the day-to-day struggles you go through as a writer. Trust me, I do it for a living, I know. They also don’t care about the day-to-day struggles of a thinly-fictionalized version of yourself. And they also don’t care about the sheer joy of the creative process, the way impossibly beautiful women and handsome men are drawn to creative types, or the wild, quirky, and outgoing nature every writer has.

And for God’s sake, it’s the worst ending in the world when the writer-character finally sells their book or screenplay, everything is now wonderful and perfect in the world, and they win the Pulitzer/ Oscar/ whatever...

The story never addresses things

It’s okay to have mystery in your story. It’s okay not to reveal everything. Heck, it’s even okay to have wild, absurd coincidences. Many movies and shows have had success by not fully explaining who that cigarette-smoking man is, why that girl down in the well is so evil, or what the heck is going on on that damned tropical island. We all like this sort of stuff, and when it’s done well it what makes your story the one people talk about and remember for ages.

However, these things still need to be acknowledged. A story can’t just get away with “it’s a secret” and expect that readers (and an audience) will just accept it. A reader can see the difference between a real mystery and a bunch of awkwardly-withheld information. It’s also apparent when a writer is keeping a secret and when they’re just trying to be mysterious because... well, people like mysterious stuff.

You can get away with a lot of bizarre stuff if your characters at least acknowledge the mystery or absurdity of it. On the show LOST we found out that someone on the plane was travelling with a pregnancy test. Yet before the audience even had a chance to mock this little bit of deus ex machina, one of the characters did. “Who travels with a pregnancy test?” laughed Kate, trying to calm her friend Sun. And with that, this ridiculous coincidence was addressed and allowed. A few years back in an issue of The Incredible Hulk, writer Peter David had sidekick Rick Jones saved from an exploding Skrull warship because he always wore a mini-parachute under his clothes in case he had to escape from an exploding Skrull warship. When Bruce Banner pointed out how absurd that was, Rick looked up at the sprawling cloud in the sky and said “ What do you mean? I needed it, didn’t I?”

Again, there’s nothing wrong with mystery and coincidence. Just make sure it really is a mystery, not just an attempt to look like one.

Crowd scenes

I read one script that introduced twelve characters in the first ten pages, plus a handful of minor ones. The record was seventeen in the first five pages. As I recently explained to a friend of mine, this is like pouring out a truckload of gravel and asking someone to take note of what color stones they see.

Pace the introduction of characters. If you tell me ten people walk into a room, you don’t need to give me all their names, genders, physical descriptions, and character quirks all at once. We can get to know them as the situation arises.

Confusing names

This may sound a little foolish and obvious, but if your story has characters named Paul, Paula, Paulina, and Paola (and one short I read did) it’s going to be very, very difficult for a reader to keep track of who’s who. Confusing as all hell, to be honest. I mention it because I saw a double-handful of scripts that all suffered from this problem and it was one of the factors that kept most of them from making it to the next level of the competition. If you look at many published novels, you’ll see it’s actually rare to get multiple characters whose names start with the same letter—it just makes for an easy mnemonic. You’re more likely to see Andrew, Bob, Cedric, and Dave than to see Andrew, Angus, Bob, and Bill. The Matrix had Neo, Morpheus, Smith, Trinity, and Cypher. Casablanca has Rick, Elsa, Victor, Louis, and Sam. Raiders of the Lost Ark had Indy, Marion, Belloq, Sallah, and Toht. Even with the huge squad of Colonial Marines in Aliens, the only double-up is Hicks and Hudson.

On a somewhat similar note, if you have a wedding planner named Leslie who’s male, make sure it’s plain and obvious he’s a man. Likewise, if your grease-covered auto mechanic Charlie is a woman, it needs to be clear up front she’s a woman, with no ambiguity at all. Nothing frustrates readers more than to get ten pages in and realize they’ve mentally assigned the wrong gender to a character, because it means they have to go back over everything they just read. So be careful with names like Pat, Chris, Sam, and so on.

Nothing ever happens

Most professional script readers will give you to page ten and then stop reading if they’re not gripped by your words. If your writing in and of itself is phenomenal, they might go along with you until page twenty or so. However by page twenty if there isn’t a definite, solid story happening, your script ends up in the large pile on the left. One script page is roughly one minute of screen time (a little less, actually), so try to find a movie where at least the basic story hasn’t been set out for the audience by twenty minutes in.

If your story (your real story) hasn’t begun by page twenty, look back over your script and see what is happening in those pages. Is it vitally important to the character? Is it advancing the story? If not, you may want to trim it out, or perhaps move it to a later scene.

Pointless changes

A common storytelling device is to take a known story (either fictional or historical) and change an element to put a new spin on it. Disney used to do this quite often with their animated versions of stories like Robin Hood. Another way to look at this is the “What if...” method of storytelling. What if aliens did build the Egyptian pyramids? What if a time traveler killed Kennedy? What if someone won the lottery?

The catch here, of course, is that such a change implies other elements of your story would change. If your team of agents find evidence Kennedy was killed by a time traveler and then continue to deal with the OPEC crisis... what was the point? Why bother to have your main character win the lottery if winning it doesn’t change a single thing in their life?

If you’re going to have a major tweak like this in your story, there should be a reason for it. If you’ve decided to tell the history of the Maya with cgi geckoes acting out all the parts... it should be apparent why.

Short brads

Yeah, this is stupid and it really shouldn’t have anything to do with how your script is received... and yet...

Few things are more frustrating than having a script constantly fall apart while you’re trying to read it. You turn the page, the brads bend, and suddenly you’re holding a pile of fanning papers. And the last thing you want is for a reader to be going through your screenplay and feel constantly frustrated.

If you’re alredy investing forty or fifty bucks to enter a contest, go the extra few feet and get the right size brass brads. You want the big, beefy ones that are over an inch and a half long-- enough to go through 120 sheets of paper and have plenty left over to bend back.

There they are. Ten things that crop up again and again, most of which will guarantee you a place in that large, left-hand pile.

So go look at your writing, and make sure that doesn’t happen to you.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Too Much Information !!!

Details are prickly things.

I prattled on about them a bit in characters, about how some writers will spend paragraphs on shoes, jewelry, spoken languages, or what have you. Details also came up a bit under the suspension of disbelief, and how getting them right or wrong can save or kill your story.

As it happens, both of these can be symptoms of a problem. This problem is a lot more common in prose than in screenplays, but I’ve seen it both places. It goes by the self-explanatory term overwriting, but I’m going to explain it anyway just in case. After all, if I didn’t, I’d have to go do the dishes and then nobody wins.

Overwriting is when a story gets bogged down with details. It’s when the author starts describing every aspect of a character or a set of actions. Each step of a walk down a hall, every single garment while getting dressed, each hand gesture in an active conversation. Some people may look at such overwritten passages and argue art or depth or beauty of language or some such. My rebuttal is those are all wonderful things when actually present, and there’s also a reason the phrase “starving artist” has stayed in the English language for so many, many decades.

The overwhelming majority of the time, overwriting slows your pacing and pushes the reader inch by inch out of your story. It’s information they don’t need or can figure out for themselves, and the other word for that sort of information, as you may remember, is noise. For example, while I’ve started writing this little rant I checked my email, switched to a different playlist in iTunes, had several sips of Diet Pepsi, talked to the missus, and scratched myself once or thrice. None of it was important to what I’m writing here, so none of it came up here. It’s all just useless details that do nothing to advance the information I’m trying to put forth and you’re trying to read. The same holds true for fiction, be it prose or screenplays. If it doesn’t need to be there, why put it there?

Let’s take a look at two interpretations of a scene and get a feel for which one conveys the required information.

* * *

“We’ve confirmed it,” said the voice on the phone. “It’s Mendoza”

“I’ll be right there,” said MacLeod. He hung up the phone and picked up his keys from the phonestand. He walked across the living room and reached for the doorknob. He opened the door, stepped outside, and closed the door behind him before locking the main lock and the deadbolt.

MacLeod walked around his house to the parking slot in the alley. He unlocked the heavy padlock and unwrapped the chain that held the gate shut. He pushed the gate open, got into his car and twisted the key in the ignition. The car backed out with a squeal of tires and a faint scrape from the front driver’s side brake pad that needed replacing. Then he got back out, pulled the gate closed, and re-wrapped the chain. The padlock went on with a snap, he sat back down in the car, closed the door, and shifted into first, switching smoothly into second as he rumbled down towards the main street.

At the end of the alley MacLeod downshifted as the car lunged out into traffic. He turned right onto Alpine, then flipped his directional and took a left onto Beech. He made another right, upshifting as he did, and roared up the Carver on-ramp onto the freeway, accelerating into the leftward-arcing curve with a gradual increase of pressure on his foot.

* * *

“We’ve confirmed it,” said the voice on the phone. “It’s Mendoza”

“I’ll be right there,” said MacLeod.

He hung up and left the apartment. Less than three minutes later his car was roaring down the freeway.

* * *

That’s a bit extreme, I admit, but it gets the idea across. They both tell you the facts you need to know, but the first one's massively overwritten. There comes a point when a writer is just spewing out excess information, be it in their dialogue or in their prose (action blocks for all you screenwriters).

I was looking over an acquaintance’s manuscript a while back and came up with an interesting way of looking at it which may be clearer. “It’s the difference between a cooking show ,” I explained to him, “and a show someone cooks on.” If you flip on the television, on one hand you’ve got folks like Emerill, Martha Stewart, or Bobby Flay. On the other hand there’s Luke and Sooky from Gilmore Girls. They’re all cooks. They all usually have food with them when they’re on screen.

However, you don’t expect Emerill to spend half his show talking about how his date went last night with the woman he met during an open house at his daughter’s school. Likewise, something’s wrong if Luke spends fifteen minutes in the middle of each episode explaining how to make a perfect grilled ham and cheese or why you should always cook french fries in vegetable oil with a few shakes of salt in it. In one case, being a cook is the sole point of the show. In the other, it’s just one small element of the show.

As you’re writing out chapters and scenes, be aware of what they’re actually about. If it’s about an obsessive-compulsive, maybe you do need the list of every dry cleaner bag in his or her closet and the shapes of all seventeen Tupperware containers in the fridge. If it isn’t, well... maybe things would move along a little without all that stuff.

Go look at your writing and see.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Proudly Wearing Your Clown Suit

I’ve noticed, among some folks, an ongoing confusion between the how of writing and the what of writing. In some cases it passes confusion and just becomes deliberate ignorance (which seems to come with those accompanying screams of “ART!!!”). While there are common threads, one is not the other, and as a professional writer it’s important to know the difference..

How is the unique part of writing. It’s that artistic bit you always hear about when people do research, write extensive outlines, symbolically burn their first drafts, and consume mass quantities of food, booze, and drugs while they search for that one, elusive, perfect word. Was the night hot or was the night humid?

How is unique to each of us as writers. That’s why I have my one golden rule— What works for me might not work for you. And it definitely won't work for that guy. We’ve all got our own personal quirks and habits and preferences that lead to a finished novel or screenplay or short story.

I got to speak with Kevin Smith a little while ago, and he explained that he only writes a few pages at a time. Then he smokes a lot, goes back, and rewrites them. Then he smokes a bit more, goes back, does some more editing, and moves on to the next scene. By the time he’s done, his script is effectively on his third or fourth draft.

One gent I know writes fairly successful action-adventure novels—three or four a year. He’s got it down to a system where he can plow out thousands of words a day on a notepad, and then the act of typing it up actually becomes his second draft.

Stephen King tends to write in the morning. Neil Gaiman writes at night (or so I’ve heard). My girlfriend needs near-silence to write, and I... well, I had to get a nice set of headphones when we finally moved in together.

There are a lot of habits that work for a lot of people, a few habits that only work for a few people, and vice-versa. In the end, how is when you get to do whatever you want. It’s when you look at all these suggestions about morning routines or dealing with writer’s block and say “No thanks, I’d rather do it this way.”

Three cheers to any of you who write for four or five hours a day, every day, at the same time. Power to you if you always squeeze in some time at the end of the night with your word processor before going to bed. If you can only write on Sundays in a clown suit while standing on your head and using voice-recognition software, congratulations. Not only are you writing regularly, you’re going to make a fascinating interview subject some day.

Now, on the other hand, we have what your finished writing is.

This part, alas, is not so subjective, no matter how hard some folks may like to shriek otherwise.

You must have characters who are believable within their world. The story has to be engaging and has to move along at a pace that will keep readers awake—and it needs to actually go somewhere. Your spelling and grammar need to be perfect.

As many people like to point out (including me), there will always be exceptions to these rules. But they’re exceptions, by definition, because they are the rarity. If you want to do this for a living, the what of your writing is probably going to have to fit within a very common and popular set of guidelines. If you’re going to assume you can be the exception... well, I won’t say that you can’t be, but you’d best be ready for a very long, very strenuous uphill battle.

What it boils down to you is that it’s completely acceptable to write in a clown suit, and feel free to smack anyone who tells you differently (just remember, you’re a writer so odds are they’ll hit back much harder than you). However, writing in a clown suit does not give you cart blanche to say your writing is flawless and beyond question. How you do it is not connected to what you’ve done.

At the end of the day, no matter how we got there, we are all being held up to the same yardsticks. If someone doesn’t measure up, it’s no one’s fault but their own.

So... put that clown suit back on and get back to writing.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Rules of the Road

I talked a bit about this a while back, but then while talking with the missus the other day I realized an even better analogy for what I was trying to say. And I thought to myself, “Hey, it’s been almost four months and that last post is sooooooooo far down the page now... I mean, no one actually scrolls back on these things, right?”


The rules for writing are a bit like the rules for driving. They weren’t made up by pulling numbers from a hat or throwing darts at a board. People went through lots of trials and setbacks and discussed things with lots of professionals. They looked at past examples that didn’t do so well and ones that were wild successes.

The 55 mph speed limit isn’t just the law, it’s a good, practical idea. Many engineers have shown that most vehicles gets the best ratio of fuel efficiency/ speed at this point. It’s also a very survivable speed in case of accidents, and traffic records show far fewer serious accidents happen at this speed.

Now... does this mean you should always drive 55, no matter what?

Not really. In fact, if the crosswalk ahead of you is filled with nuns and orphans, it might be a good idea to hit the brakes. Same thing in a school zone or residential area. Sometimes 55 is just way too fast.

By the same token, if your girlfriend/ boyfriend/ husband/ wife is in the passenger seat bleeding out from a traumatic injury, going a little faster than 55 might be advisable. The police may even quietly congratulate you for it. To be honest, they’d probably be more than a little suspicious if you insisted on driving the speed limit while your loved one was dying next to you...

In fact, most police officers will tell you that sometimes breaking the speed limit is okay. There are times you can sail down the highway at ten or fifteen miles over the limit and the state trooper driving next to you won’t bat an eye. And there are times you can scrape against 57 miles per hour and they’ll have you on the side of the road instantly. Anyone who’s been driving for a while knows this, and is probably aware of when you can an can’t do it.

So writing is a lot like driving. There are rules, those rules are there for a reason, and editors and agents will punish you if you break them. Sometimes.

For example... some people like to thump their screenwriting bibles and say that you should absolutely never use voice-over in a script. Know what though? Casablanca begins with voice-over. So do The Prestige and Dark City. Layer Cake has almost ten minutes of voice-over from Daniel Craig’s unnamed drug dealer before anyone actually speaks. The Matrix starts with voice-over from two people discussing the main character. The Oscar-nominated short (later expanded to a feature) Cashback is brimming with voice-over.

Are these movies wrong, somehow? Didn’t they work?

The ever-quotable agent Esmond Harmsworth once pointed out that mystery novels should always happen somewhere people want to go on vacation. They happen in Las Vegas, in London, or in the Florida Keys. However, in the same discussion he mentioned one or two manuscripts he was looking at that were set in small towns—but were good enough to overcome breaking that standard.

Your job as a writer is to know when you can break the rules, and by how much. Unfortunately, this is something that cannot be taught or quantified. You just have to learn through practice, the same way it took you a couple of years, a speeding ticket, and a few harsh warnings to figure out the exceptions to the speed limit. Anyone who ever gives you a checklist that says “Rule #3 can only be broken if conditions A, B, F, and Q have all been met” is lying to you. There will always be a clever new way of breaking rule #3 and getting away with it. Always.

The real trick is knowing you’ve actually found that way.

So... go write an exception to the rules.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Quitting Time

There comes a point in every challenge when you realize you’re not getting ahead. That all the time, effort, and enthusiasm you mustered for a project just isn’t enough. Why isn’t important, the fact is... it just isn’t.

At which point, you need to make a choice. Do you keep storming the castle? Continue throwing yourself into the breach? Forge on despite all odds with the strength of your convictions?

Or do you give up?

Honestly? If it was up to me...

I think you should quit.

No, keep reading. There’s an important part to this.

If you’ve spent the past decade trying to get any publisher in the world to just look at one of your book manuscripts, and they’re not interested—take a hint. If you’ve spent hundreds and hundreds of dollars on screenwriting classes and contests over the past ten or twelve years, but still don’t even have one toenail in the door—save your money.

You should stop. Cut your losses. Quit. Stop beating your head against the wall, demanding to be recognized, and move on.

In a way, this ties back to something I wrote about a while back. You need to be able to look at your own work honestly and objectively. Knowing when to give up on a project is part of that. After querying 500 or so reps and not getting a single nibble, you need to consider the fact the problem may not lay with them. Your writing may be perfect, it may be gold, it may be what everyone in America is dying for. At the moment, though, for one reason or another, it’s not what those specific people are looking for. And, right or wrong, they are the ones who decide if everyone else gets to see it. As a wise man once said, they are the gatekeepers. They are guarding all the doors and holding all the keys.

Now... here’s that important part.

I’m not saying stop writing altogether. It’s just time to sit back and look at what you’ve done and how you’re doing things. Maybe the problem is characters. Maybe it’s dialogue. Could just be your cover letter. Perhaps even something as basic as an overwhelming number of typos. At the end of the day, you’re doing something that needs to stop happening, because one way or another it’s holding you back.

I’ve met people who wrote one novel way back in college and have spent the past twenty or thirty years sending it to agent after agent, publisher after publisher. They haven’t changed one word since they first set it down on paper. They haven’t done anything else since. They’ve just got that one story going out again and again and again...

Same thing in Hollywood. People write a screenplay over a long weekend, never polish or revise it, but try to use it as a calling card for years. I know of one guy on the contest circuits who’s been pushing the same script for almost a decade. He hasn’t done anything else in the meantime.

Knowing when to quit and move on isn’t a weakness or a flaw. It’s a strength. It’s the only way you can grow and learn new things, because you won’t get any better if you keep poking at the same manuscript again and again for decades. Sometimes you just have to give up on something. If you want to be all new-age about it... you need to learn to let go.

It took me almost eleven years to finish my first solid novel, The Suffering Map. Not an idea, not a work in progress, not something I’ve been poking at. A complete, polished book manuscript, cover-to-cover. Beginning, middle, and end. Yeah, that’s a long time, but close to a decade of that was the film industry convincing me to go work on screenplays instead. If I wanted to make myself feel better, I could probably say it only took about two years of actual work.

Of course, these ongoing rants aren’t about making any of us feel better. Even me...

So, eleven years of work, and then the querying began. Letter after letter, rejection after rejection. Go through it again, create a new draft, and then start the letters again. Some people asked to see it. Some very nice, high-end, holy-crap-I- can’t-believe-he/she-asked-for-this people. Many letters and emails were traded back and forth.

In the end, though, after almost a dozen very major revisions, all of them passed on it. And then I realized, this was done. At that point I’d spent over a dozen years on said novel. Almost my entire life since graduating from college.

Time to work on something else.

I’m not saying I’ll never go back to it. Many writers will tell you if your screenplay or novel gets rejected, put it in the drawer and wait a few years. I’m also not saying it will sell in a heartbeat if I decide to try again in five years. For now, though, I’ve given up on it. I’ve admitted defeat and moved onto (and finished) another novel. And several short stories (many of which have sold). Even a screenplay which did passably well on the contest circuits. Not to mention a paying-the-rent career as an entertainment journalist.

If I’d stayed focused on that novel no one wanted to see, though, I wouldn’t’ve done any of it. I’d still be back there at square one. And my list of published credits wouldn’t be the size it is now.

So the next time the thought of quitting crosses your mind because you’re frustrated with your screenplay or novel or the ongoing search for an agent... actually stop and think about it. Perhaps it’s time, as the networks like to say, to put that bit of work on indefinite hold. Maybe even a few bits of work.

Then look in a new direction, start writing again, and do something different.

Monday, October 6, 2008


Some of you engineering types (there may be one or two out there glancing at this) may recognize this little rant’s title. It’s an old, simple rule—Garbage In, Garbage Out.

This rule has been around for centuries in dozens of different forms. You get what you pay for. You are what you eat. People have known for ages that what you put into something has a direct result on what comes out.

And yet, so few people follow this rule. Many admit it’s true, but think it doesn’t apply to them. I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve seen film producers “save” money by hiring untrained, bottom of the barrel crew members, then get upset because these people are doing untrained, bottom of the barrel work. Worse, then they have the gall to be surprised when it results in a bottom of the barrel film.


Closer to our end of things, I’m stunned how many people who call themselves writers all but brag about the fact that they rarely read-- or don’t read at all. I saw one fellow online proudly announce “Real writers don’t have time to read.”

Truth is, real writers have time for almost nothing except reading.

You have to read. You must have input. There is no other way to be a writer. If you don’t take it in, how can you expect to put it out? If you want to be a writer and have to make the choice between a night out with friends, watching the killer NBC Monday night line up, taking in the new Quentin Tarantino flick, or getting caught up on the next Gaunt’s Ghosts book by Dan Abnett, there shouldn’t really be a choice at all.

Your whole body needs to hunger for words.

The sentences of John Steinbeck should be the best steak you’ve ever had, the phrasing of Ray Bradbury like a fine wine. Finish it off with a little King or Gaiman for dessert, and maybe some McCarthy as an aperitif. Classic stories by Burroughs, Lovecraft, or Dickens should be that rare vintage you’ve pulled from the cellar for a special occasion, to be savored on the palate for their unique taste, never to be made again.

Are you looking more at screenwriting? Consider the classic, subtle wordplay of Casablanca or The Day The Earth Stood Still (the original, please). Study the damned clever structure of Scott Frank’s Dead Again or Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige. Find some scripts by Shane Black (screenwriter of Lethal Weapon, The Long Kiss Goodnight, and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang) and see how much fun they are to read.

Now, there’s another important reason you need to keep reading. No one’s interested in what’s already out there. So your book idea about a little boy discovering he’s a sorcerer is neat, but J.K. Rowling beat you to it. Sorry. Television show about a lawyer getting visions from God? Done. Funny and action-packed film about a millionaire inventor who builds an armored battlesuit to fight injustice? Man, you just don’t get out much, do you...?

You need to read because you need to stay abreast of what’s out there, what people are looking for, and where your work lines up with current trends. A few more examples...

Behold my cool new idea for a series of linked stories about thinking robots. They dream, paint, and run for office. But they can never go bad or run amok, because their neutronic brains are hardwired with three rules that govern all their thoughts actions. I call these Pete’s Three Rules for Why Robots can Never Go Bad or Run Amok.

Behold my cool new idea for a feature film, about a computer programmer who comes to realize everything he knows is essentially a giant video game he’s trapped in. It turns out that in the real world humans are slaves to machines, and some people are actually just other programs interacting with the game. But a group of rebels have found our hero, and teach him how to hack into the game like they do. I call this one Trapped in Evil Marioland! Yes, the exclamation point is part of the title.

Behold my cool new idea for a novel. It’s about an art historian who discovers secret messages left behind by a Renaissance artist, and finds himself in conflict with the group trying to protect those secrets. I call it The Cipher of Michelangelo.

What? All been done you say? Are you sure? I thought they were pretty original... I guess I should’ve read more stuff...

Okay, what about a film where a little kid discovers the girl next door is a vampire? Two friends decide to make a porno movie? A has-been wrestler takes a last chance in the ring despite a heart condition? What about a remake of Omega Man?

Wait, wait... books! An unjustly imprisoned man escapes, takes on a new identity, and swears revenge on the people who framed him? An interdimensional cowboy assembles a team to travel to a dark tower that’s destroying the universe? Two friends in the ‘40s create a wildly popular comic-book character? A meek governess falls in love with her employer, but finds out his crazy wife is held prisoner up in the attic of their secluded home? Dracula squares off against Sherlock Holmes? A young man is sworn to vengeance by the ghost of his recently-deceased father?

Nope. All been done. Every one of them.

This doesn’t mean you can’t try to tell those stories, too. But there better not be any overlap, and yours better knock the ball out of the park. If not, though... don’t be surprised when your manuscript ends up in that large pile on the left and not the small one on the right.

So get off the internet and get back to writing.

Or, at the very least, go read something.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

The Suspension Bridge

Most of us have heard the term willing suspension of disbelief. It’s when a story or plot has something implausible, maybe even impossible in it, but we accept it for the sake of the narrative. Long lost twins. The dinosaurs of Jurassic Park. The lucky coincidence. Hidden messages behind the Mona Lisa. The walking dead. Kevin Costner as Robin Hood. All things that are inherently unrealistic, but we let them slide because they’re part of the story.

Children have an incredible ability to suspend disbelief, because they don’t know what not to believe in. To them, Cinderella and Aladdin are real. So are Optimus Prime, Sponge Bob, Barney, Barbie, Spider-Man, and Dora the Explorer. When I was little, I was absolutely convinced the stop-motion dinosaurs of Land of the Lost were real (look at them! They’re not cartoons! They’re on film! With people!!) and had many sleepless nights worried Grumpy the Tyrannosaurus would be looming outside my bedroom window the same way he was always outside that cave.

On the other hand, my dad, a former liaison with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, lost interest in Back to the Future less than a minute in. As the gears and gadgets made breakfast for Doc Brown and his dog, the television news report said plutonium had vanished from a local nuclear reactor. He looked at me and said “Do you know what it would take for someone to sneak in and get any amount of plutonium off-site from a reactor?”

Willing suspension of disbelief is like a huge block. Throughout the course of reading a story or watching a film, the audience is going to chip at that block. You, the writer, are going to give them the tools and motivation to do it. The trick is knowing what to give them and how much to encourage them.

Every story starts with that block at 100%. Picture a huge solid cube of ice, stone, or whatever visual appeals to you. Every audience goes in completely willing to believe this is a true story, a story they will believe and accept without hesitation. No matter what the topic or genre is, no one picks up a book or walks into a theater without being open and ready to commit to it.

However, each time you hand them something they can’t accept, for whatever reason, they take a chip off that block. Maybe it’s a small little sliver. Maybe it’s a gigantic slab like one of those ice shelves that keep breaking off in the Arctic Circle (but don’t worry, kids—global warming’s just a myth).

The big trick here, of course, is knowing when to stop chipping, because eventually that block will shatter and collapse in on itself. That’s the point people start laughing, shaking their heads, and posting angry rants online. You want to put in your wild coincidences, werewolves, and wacky supporting characters, but you don’t want to undermine your own work. You need to be aware of what’s going to push your story over the edge. And be aware—that edge comes before the block hits zero.

Quick pause for story time...

On a publisher’s message board I frequent, a gentleman recently posted a large rant of his own about a straight-to-DVD zombie film and the many, many problems it had. Problems like misrolled sleeves on Marines and soldiers. Military vehicles with license plates. The size of a missile silo set. Now, faithful readers (all three of you), d’you remember what the genre of this film was?

Yes, it was a zombie film. In a film about the walking dead rising up to eat the flesh of the living, this gent found someone’s cuffs so unbelievable and distracting that it ruined the film for him.

Don’t worry about pleasing this guy. Or my dad.

Well, okay. Dad loves stuff from William-Sonoma.

So, anyway, let’s get back on track and play a simple game...

Put that big block of belief up in front of you. I’m just going to rattle off some stuff at random and assign values to it based off my own experience. Consider your story and subtract as you need to.

Keep in mind, some chips are contained within larger ones. If you got a chunk knocked off for flying saucers, odds are no one’s going to take another chunk off if you introduce extraterrestrials. Once you’ve taken a sliver away for a woman who’s been pining for her high school boyfriend for twenty years, it’s not too hard to believe she can instantly remember the maiden name of the girl he took to the senior prom. And once they’ve accepted time-travel, most audience members will accept a paradox or two.


Every single wooden, forced, or “on the nose” line of dialogue is going to cost you 1% off the block, so be careful because they’ll add up fast. Characters who are supposed to be smart but do inherently stupid things—that’s a good 3%. Every stereotypical burnt-out cop, stripper with the heart of gold, clueless boss, snotty cheerleader, dumb jock, or introspective pot smoker—take 5% of the block for every one of those overused characters. Take off another 10% if they’re one of your main characters. Any unarmed, unprotected person who walks into the dark building they just heard screams come from is going to cost you 5%. Anyone pausing in mid-action to deliver more than three lines worth of dialogue—oh, that’s a good 7% off the big block.

Each woman who randomly gets undressed, changes clothes for no reason, or frets about her hair while in a burning building surrounded by vampires—that’s 10% off the block. Every man who grunts, drinks, or randomly demeans people is another 10%. Anyone who can spontaneously fight like a 20-year devotee of the martial arts will cost you 5%. If any character says “I don’t understand” or some variation thereof twice or more in a chapter or scene, that’s 10%. Also you’ll lose 5% every time a characters does something that goes directly against their established type—cops who get drunk and do drugs with underage girls, college professors who get baffled by simple problems, incredibly wise and intelligent aliens who can’t figure out a doorknob.

Anything that shows a complete failure of research or understanding of the real world adds up fast. A Protestant minister who takes confession is 5% off the block. So do rabbis eating ham sandwiches. Diesel fuel tanks that explode in a fire are 1%. Revolvers that fire seven or eight bullets will be 3 or 4% per extra shot, and people who die from being shot in the shoulder cost you a good 5% off. Every time a random stranger walks off and leaves their keys in the ignition with the engine running—that’s a solid 10%.

If your main character falls five stories without suffering any harm, that’s minus 5%. Another 7% off if computers randomly develop sentience. Call it 10% if, with no foreshadowing, aliens suddenly attack. Knock it up to 20% if, with no foreshadowing, flying space monkeys attack.

Now, ready for the hard one...?

Every misspelled or misused word is going to cost you 1%. As readers hit mistake after mistake, their faith in the writer’s ability drops. After three dozen typos, they just aren’t going to believe the writer can pull off revealing Bobby is a retired NSA agent or that Debbie was raised by wolves. It’s not fair, no, but that’s the way it is.

So, with all that in mind... how’s you do?

More importantly, how did your block do?

Even more importantly—it’s time to get back to writing.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Let’s Have Us A Little Dialogue

Dialogue is the lifeblood of fiction. It’s how your characters move beyond the page and become living, breathing people. In any sort of literature, it’s going to be the key to making them memorable. In screenplays, it’s going to be what makes them quotable.

Conversely, bad dialogue is the fastest way to make sure characters are dead to your readers. When someone speaks in flat, clumsy, expositional dialogue, it makes them unbelievable. And when a reader can’t believe in your characters, it means they can’t believe in your story.

There are a lot of mistakes I see coming up again and again in stories. Here are seven of the most common ones...

Contractions- One thing that always makes dialogue drag and sound forced is when every word is spelled out in full. A lot of people start out writing this way because they’re trying to follow all the rules of spelling and punctuation so they don’t get branded a rookie, and ironically... While this is a good practice for your prose, most people use contractions in every day speech, even judges, professors, and rich businessmen. Without them, dialogue sounds stilted, wooden, and off-kilter. If there’s a reason for someone to speak that way (ESL, robots, aliens, or what have you), then by all means do it. If your characters are regular, English-speaking mortals, though...

“I am willing to bet you will not act while a child is in danger.”

“I’m willing to bet you won’t act while a child’s in danger.”

“What is the number for the place that does not charge late fees?”

“What’s the number for the place that doesn’t charge late fees?

Notice that using contractions also drops your word count and page count.

On The Nose-- Professional readers and writers talk about dialogue that’s “on the nose.” It’s when someone says precisely what they mean or what they’re doing without any subtlety or characterization whatsoever. It’s the difference between “Why are you constantly mean and disrespectful to me, Rob?” and “What the hell’s your problem, anyway?” Nine times out of ten, if someone’s talking to themselves out loud, it’s on the nose. Almost half the time it’s just exposition (see below). A good way to think of it is old radio-show dialogue, when people had to depend on only dialogue with no visuals at all.

“Come on, Jenkins! There’s only six more steps to the top of this staircase. You can make it.”

“You know I can never forgive you for the way you treated me back when we were in high school and I was in love with you.”

“I can’t eat the rest of this food. I’ll ask the waiter to pack it up so I can take it home with me for later.”

Follow the example of the late, lamented Keen Eddie, where at least once an episode Mark Valley and Sienna Miller would bellow or snap “I hate you!” “I hate you, too!” back and forth at each other in their shared London flat. While those words were pretty on the nose the first time they were yelled, across the show’s short life they came to mean the exact opposite-- with no explanation needed.

Exposition—It was just last week I said exposition gets a bad rap. Expositional dialogue is what gives it that bad rap. Remember being a kid in school and being bored by textbooks or filmstrips below your level? That’s the boredom exposition gives your readers.

"You know, Doug, you've been my step-brother for seventeen years now, and I'm still stunned how bad you are at geography. You need to bone up on it, especially now that you've finally gotten your dream job of being a professional airline pilot."

Use the Ignorant Stranger method as a guideline and figure out how much of your dialogue is crossing that line. If any character ever gives an explanation of something that the other characters in the room already should know (or your reader should know), cut that line. If it’s filled with necessary facts, find a better way to get them across.

Transcription- One thing years of interviews have taught me is that, with very few exceptions, people trip over themselves a lot verbally. We have false starts, we repeat phrases, we trail off, we make odd noises while we try to think of words. Anyone who’s ever read a strict word-for-word transcription of a conversation will find it’s awkward, hard to follow, and a lot gets lost without the exact inflection of certain words.

One of the worst things you can do is try to write dialogue in such an ultra-realistic manner. It will drive editors nuts and waste your word count on dozens of unnecessary lines.

“What I... I think you’ll find that what I wanted...what I meant to say, is that there are some wanna-be... some aspiring writers who follow directions- some aspiring writers who follow guidelines better than others, and they’re the ones who eventually, that is—I mean, if you can’t follow the rules you can’t expect to succeed, right?”

This sort of rambling can work great in spoken dialogue, but when it’s written on the page it’s lethal. Even if you’re trying to re-create Hugh Grant’s confusing confession in Four Weddings and a Funeral, keep it simple for now so you don’t scare off producers and investors..

Similarity- People are individuals, and we all have our own unique way of speaking. People from California don’t talk like people from Maine (I’ve lived almost two decades in each state, I know), people from Oxford don’t talk like people from ITT Tech, and armor-plated, heavily-armed mutants from Skaro don’t talk like Earthlings. In your writing, your characters need to be individuals as well, with their own tics and habits that make them distinct from the people around them. If you can’t tell who’s speaking without knowing the complete context or seeing the dialogue headers, you need to get back to work.

Accents- This is a common mistake by beginning writers. Accents, dialects, and odd speech tics that are written out drive readers and editors nuts. Now, there are a handful of professional writers who can do truly amazing accents in their dialogue, yes, but keep those facts in mind— Only a handful. Professionals. If you’re reading this, odds are you’re still on a lower rung of that ladder trying to impress an editor or producer.

“’ullo, dere, Guv’nah. Spara few shillin’s fur a fella Vetrin uf th’ Waa’?”

“Eh, mah frien’, why you go causin’ mah peeple such beeg problems?”

“If thiz iz yourrr wish, then my warrrriorz will drrraw back.”

Yeah, that last one’s an alien accent I came up with years back for a race that had tongues and beaks like birds. I lost five pages when I got rid of all those triple-Rs.

Show an accent by picking out one or two key words at most and making those the only words you show it with. If he or she’s Jamaican, stick with “mah” instead of “my.” For the Cockney fellow, keep the dropped H when he speaks. Past that, just write straight dialogue. Just the bare minimum reminders that the characters have an accent. Like most character traits, your reader will fill in the rest.

Monologues—This one’s tough, because a good monologue can be a major point in any story or film. By the same token, though, a bad one can bring your story to a screeching halt.

The first clue at if it’s a bad monologue is to look at some of the dialogue rules above. Is it necessary? Does it read naturally? Is it flowing? Does it fit the moment? Someone who launches into a formal monologue while being pounded by artillery shells and enemy sniper fire is probably going to sound a bit forced. If you’re breaking one of these guidelines and doing it with a 750 word monologue, your manuscript is going to end up in the ever-growing left hand pile.

Second clue if it’s bad is to count how many monologues there’ve already been. Yes, that may sound laughable, but you’d be amazed at some of the things I’ve seen. One recent script I read for a screenwriting contest had half-page dialogue blocks on almost every page. If you’re on page forty-five and this is your fifth full-page monologue... odds are something needs to be reworked.

One last tip. A lot of people suggest reading your dialogue out loud to find where it trips. That’s not bad, but if you really want to find out how it reads, ask someone else to read it out loud—preferably someone who hasn’t seen it before or heard you talk about it. If you’re reading it yourself, you know how it’s supposed to sound, where the breaks should be, and what gets the emphasis. Let a friend or family member who doesn’t know it read it out loud and see what they do with it.

And then get back to your writing.

What are you still online for? Get back to writing!