Friday, March 27, 2009

Kiss Kiss, Boom Boom

      An odd title, I know. Hopefully it’ll make sense by the end.
      So, everybody here knows a drama queen, right?
      I know there are two or three international readers here, and maybe they’re called something different across the ocean. Drama queens can be male or female and, as the name implies, they make drama. All the time. It’s what they release instead of the sweat and pheromones the rest of us let off. No matter how simple or mundane the situation, they’ll find a way to complicate it and over-emotionalize it. It’s what they do. I had a drama queen friend once who could make a dozen people going to the movies an operation on par with storming the beaches of Normandy. Operation Desert Shield was child’s play compared with getting all of us out to see the new Lord of the Rings.
      Now, people do behave irrationally sometimes, and we all have a buffer of sorts for it. There’s one time that you’ll accept someone’s insistence this is the worst thing that can ever happen, despite all evidence it’s pretty minor. We’re all decent enough to let a friend have one breakdown or emotional crisis for no real reason. That’s what friends do. Sometimes molehills really do look like mountains. We’ve all been there. If this happens once, it doesn’t make you a drama queen.
      Here’s the thing about these folks, though. The litmus test, if you will. They can pull their business once. That’s it. The second time someone tries to make a production out of a text message, or a trip to the grocery store, or a rumor they heard, you’re going to be taking it with a grain of salt. The third time it’ll be a spoonful of salt. And by the fourth time, you’ll already be focusing past them before the second word.
      Starting to see where we’re going with this?
      Some folks have a bad habit of creating false drama in their writing. They want to keep the reader’s interest, so they throw in something that they know is considered a good element for their chosen genre. Suddenly, for no reason at all, Bob and Cindy kiss passionately. With no warning, Emily starts to freak out over the message she just got. People start shooting at Dan. Out of nowhere, the car blows up. And then Cindy remembers she was molested as a child and starts shrieking at Bob.
      Let me use films as an example. Most folks have seen a movie that’s just loaded with action. Where there are gunfights, explosions, ninjas, and more. Non-stop ninjas, in fact. Cyborg ninjas. From the future. With nuclear self-destruct devices on timers. Short timers. And yet... the movie didn’t hold your attention. Bored you, even.
      On the other hand, maybe you’ve had to sit through an indie film. And by indie I don’t mean independent, I mean indie. That special sub-genre of film that’s grown over the past decade. Indie films usually have a lot of people talking. Or not talking. Maybe staring at walls, old photos, or trees. Staring deeply. Pondering. And all the while, they’re trying to deal with issues. Problems. Things that weigh heavy on their soul. And talking some more. Or screaming. Or crying. Or then Cindy remembers she was molested as a child and starts shrieking at Bob. And that’s not holding your attention either, is it? Bored again, aren’t you.
This is all empty material. It’s false drama. It’s unmotivated action. And like the drama queen we’ve all known, it doesn’t take us too long to start tuning it out.
      This is, for the record, a very, very common first draft problem. Someone comes up with an interesting idea on page 98 and drops it in, ignoring the fact that absolutely nothing in the 97 pages before it even slightly or remotely hint at this idea. It isn’t a bad idea mind you. It just comes out of nowhere, like me suddenly shouting out WHANGDOODLE for no reason. Might be eyecatching and funny once. Maybe. But wouldn’t it be better, and more keeping with the rest of the post, if I made an off-color joke about some of those cyborg ninjas traveling back in time even further and molesting Cindy when she was a child?
      So, the easiest ways to avoid all this emptiness...
      Motivation. If one of your characters is doing something, whether they’re one of the leads or that guy they bump on the street, they should have a reason for doing it. It should be consistent with what we’ve seen them do before. This includes people we don’t see at all, like the people who are setting bombs under cars or loading that song into the jukebox. If there’s no reason for someone to do it, that probably means no one should do it.
      Realism. It doesn’t have to be tied to our real world, but what’s happening in your story should be believable within the reality of your story. Cyborg ninjas are great in Bytestrike VII: Computron’s Revenge. They are not quite as impressive or fitting in To Kill A Mockingbird.
      Coherency. A sci-fi story shouldn’t turn into a gothic romance halfway through. Likewise, a chick-lit story about shopoholics shouldn’t decend into a bloodbath. And hardened soldiers on the battlefront shouldn’t break down in tears because war is so icky and their boots are too tight. If you come up with a neat idea, go back and make it a consistent idea thoughout your writing.
      Relevance. Okay, maybe Cindy was molested by time-travelling cyborg ninjas when she was thirteen. Does that really have anything to do with the story of her trying to save the historic movie theater in her town from demolition? Will it have any effect on that meeting she’s having with the developers and the town council? If not, why are you bringing it up? Yeah, it may be rich character development, but it’s also distracting from your actual story, and that’s what everyone’s here to read.
      So, look back over your manuscript and make sure everything’s actually got something behind it. No empty drama. No empty explosions. Make sure it’s all got some weight to it.
      Next week, by request, a few thoughts on names and what’s in them.
      Until then... go write.

Friday, March 20, 2009

No Exceptions. None. Usually.

A week or three back I was browsing over the responses I get here. Luckily there’s only six or seven of you reading this, and I’m sure you’re all busy writing your own stuff, so it didn’t take long.

Anyway, I noticed an interesting thing. One of the most common forms of response here was the “Ahhhh, but...” They weren’t as emphatic or strongly worded as some of the ones you often find on most message boards, but they were there. Salt and peppered throughout the ranty blog.

If you can’t figure it, the “Ahhhh, but...” response is when someone counters a point with contradictory information. For example, I could say “Writing a blog will never help you get a film deal,” and someone could leap forward and say “Ahhhh, but isn’t that just what happened to Diablo Cody, writer of Juno? Not so smart after all, are you, Mister-wise-writer-guy?”

In even simpler words, the “Ahhhh, but...” response is when people point to the exception in an attempt to disprove the rule. Usually, they’re doing this to show that someone else did it the easy way, so we can’t fault them for trying to do it the easy way as well.

Now, let’s be clear on one thing—there are always exceptions to the rule. Always. Anyone who tells you that something is 100%, never-question-it always wrong can be ignored. Especially if they shriek “no exceptions!!”

Here’s the catch... exceptions to the rule are very, very rare. Exceptionally rare, you could say. That’s why they’re the exception and not the rule. For every person who sold the first draft of the first novel they wrote, there are millions of people who did not. Yeah, Kevin Smith got into Hollywood with a successful, low-budget indie film, but tens of thousands of folks have tried the same trick with no results. And, yes, Diablo Cody made a screenwriting career out of her blog—and that’s one out of how many blogs on the internet? One out of ten million? Fifty million? More?

That’s why most people trying to give you useful information, like myself, tell you to stick with all the established rules. It’s a longer, harder, and more frustrating path, but it’s still your best bet at success. Sure, I could sound a lot more positive and cheerful a lot of the time. I could say everyone’s a special snowflake, don’t worry about doing things wrong, and we should just do what feels good because we’ll all get published or produced some day. The overwhelming odds are, though, that I’d be doing all of you a disservice with such statements.

So, here’s my bit of advice for you, and it’s one I hope you’ve seen underlying most of the stuff I’ve said here since the first post you may have read.

The best thing you can do is assume you are not the exception to the rule. No matter how clever, how witty, how perfect your writing is, do not think of yourself as the one person who gets to ignore all the established standards. The absolute worst thing you can do is scoff at the rules and think they don’t apply to you. No matter how vastly superior your work is, always consider yourself working from the same level as everyone else.

The reason you should assume this is because the person reading your work is going to assume it. Nobody goes to a Friday the 13th film thinking it’s going to have an Oscar-winning metaphor for the Israel-Palestine conflict in it. You don’t pick up a Stephen King book for a tearjerker romance. And, personally, I’d be a bit shocked if Charlie Gibson decided to perform the ABC Evening News as an opera some night. We all have certain expectations we’ve built up, and these expectations all tend to fall in line with the rules.

Does that mean all these things won’t happen or can’t be done? Not at all. Your writing may be so utterly, mind-bogglingly spectacular that no one notices the abundant typos. The structure could be so rock-hard the reader will forgive and forget those atrociously dull opening pages. It’s even possible the idea is so fiendishly, unbelievably clever that nobody will pick up on the fact that every character is a paper-thin cut out carbon-copied from the cast of Heroes (not first season Heroes, mind you... I’m talking about fourth season Heroes)

However, here’s the one thing you can absolutely count on. The moment we notice that Jason Voorhees is now dressed in the colors of Hamas, see that Camp Crystal Lake has been bought out by a wealthy Hassidic group as a spiritual retreat, and read all this through a forest of misspellings and misused words... oh, at that moment we’re all going to groan. Our collective eyes will roll and the thought will cross all our minds—Dear God, I should probably just give up on this right now.

That’s what you’re fighting against when you want to be the exception to the rule. Your audience. They’ve seen attempts to break the rules again and again and again, and the overwhelming majority of these attempts have been simply awful. Remember, the exceptions are rare. Very rare. So when you veer away from the rules, everyone is going to go with the numbers and assume your work is simply awful, too.

In which case, it’s only throwing gas on the fire if you just swaggered in, tossed down your manuscript, and announced it to be a work of staggering genius. Those two things combined will pretty much guarantee your manuscript goes in the large pile on the left, regardless of how good your writing may get around page thirty or so.

A nice, simple rule of thumb. If at any single point you find yourself questioning if something matters—assume it does. Does my main character need to be developed more than this paragraph? Will a reader care that I misspelled forty or fifty words? Do I need to make that part of the story clearer? Should I bother to look up the exact format rules for this?

Your default answer for all of these questions needs to be yes.

Again, this doesn’t mean it can’t be done, and there’s always that chance someone might sit through Friday the 13th Part XII: Dredel of Death and walk out saying “Wow... you know, I never looked at the Middle East in those terms before. It’s so clear now how foolish we’ve all been.” I mean, forget Oscars, we’re talking about a Nobel Peace Prize for Jason this time around. It’s hard for established writers to pull off that sort of thing, though, so aspirants really need to be aware of the very, very steep climb ahead of them if they go in thinking the standards don’t apply to them.

You shouldn’t be scared to do something new, because if you break the rules—break them well, mind you—you’ll get noticed and rewarded for it.

Just remember that a lot of people break the rules because they don’t know what they’re doing... and you don’t want to get lumped in with them.

Next week, we’ll discuss the fact that not all explosions are exciting, and a great deal of drama is not dramatic.

Until then, go write.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Professor Plum, in the Library, with the Lead Pipe

We’re all familiar with that title reference, yes? Even if you never played as a kid (or a semi-drunken college student), you’ve probably seen or heard about it. Clue is the classic mystery game, where you have to determine the murder weapon, the scene of the crime, and (of course) the killer.

A game of Clue isn’t much of a mystery, however. It’s more of a puzzle you just need to solve though the process of elimination. We never find out why the good professor felt the need to cave in Mr. Boddy’s skull. Was it an act of revenge, long-overdue justice, or just a heated argument that boiled over into violence? Similarly, Plum never offers any sort of defense or alibi. He just ends up being the only person who can’t account for his location at the time of the murder, so we cart him off to life behind bars.

Motives and alibis are what really separate a mystery from a puzzle. They’re the human element that makes things either a little more complicated or a lot more difficult, depending on your point of view.

The motive is why someone does what they do-- the personal reasons behind the action. Why does the Monster (sometimes called Adam) kill Victor Frankenstein’s bride-to-be? Why does Lando betray Han? Why does Romeo kill Tybalt?

If you really think about it, though, most characterization comes down to motives. Knowing why someone’s doing something—anything, not just criminal acts-- tells you a bit about them. We learn a lot about the good Doctor Jones simply because of his desire to go looking for the Ark of the Covenant, but also because he mocks the ideas behind the fabled treasure. You can ask these sort of questions about most great characters. Why is it so important to Atticus Finch that Tom Robinson receive a fair trial? Why is young Edmond Dantes so determined to escape from prison? Why does Dot keep hitting Yakko with that hammer when he’s not looking?

You can even look at motives in a negative light to help define characters. Not why characters do something, but why didn’t they do something else? Sometimes people make difficult, troublesome decisions that are going to cause problems, and that can tell your audience something about them as well. Why won’t Nick Andros abandon Tom Cullen (M-O-O-N spells Tom) so he can travel faster to Denver? Why doesn’t Louis turn Rick over to the Nazis for shooting Major Strasse? Why won’t Prince Hal acknowledge his friendship with Falstaff?

Motives don’t need to be big, elaborate things, mind you. “Bob doesn’t want to get beaten up,” is a perfectly acceptable motive. So is “Beatrice wants to sleep with Larry” or “Pinky is hungry.” Not everyone has to be hiding a dark secret, keeping themselves out of the electric chair, or protecting the Holy Grail.

The real failure comes when characters do things not for their motives but for the writer’s. If you ever look at a character action and the reasoning behind it is “because X needs to do Y,” that’s false motivation. The writer is looking forward in the story rather than back at character development. And character development is where all your motivation is going to come from.

Now, in mystery stories, the alibi often walks right alongside the motive. Simply put, the alibi is the reason you couldn’t’ve done the crime, even if you had a reason to. It’s contradictory evidence. We know Miss Scarlet was in the greenhouse and Colonel Mustard can’t lift anything over his head since the war, so they’re off the hook for Boddy’s murder. We may find out later Scarlet was in the bedroom with Mrs. White and Mustard’s medical records were faked, but that just makes the mystery a little juicer.

In fact, alibis make most stories a little more tasty, because keeping something hidden makes other characters (and the audience) think twice. It’s when you want to deceive your audience and keep a little something from them to improve the story. Most romances wouldn’t be as interesting if at least one of the two parties involved wasn’t completely denying an attraction. Stu Redman must die in that ravine, because none of his friends ever see him again. And there’s no way those robots can do anything wrong, because the Three Laws will keep them on the straight-and-narrow path every time, right?

Note that in many of these examples, the writer isn’t even lying to the audience. If the reader chooses to interpret things a certain way (a wrong way), that’s hardly our fault is it? Well, okay, it is, but we’re doing it for a good reason. The key thing is, none of these alibis are cheats. There’s a good reason none of Stu’s friends ever see him again. The robots really are following the Three Laws (as best as their little positronic brains can, anyway). And, come on, who’s really going to admit they’re attracted to a guy like Chuck, right?

So, even if crime doesn’t pay, you can still get something useful out of it. If your characters always have honest motives, they’ll be real. If they always have compelling alibis, they’ll be interesting.

Next week, since it’s been brought it up once or thrice, we’re going to talk about the rules. To be more specific, we’re going to talk about being the exception to the rule, because that’s what most folks are more interested in.

Until then, get yourself motivated and go write.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Third is the Prestige

If you haven’t seen the film I titled this week’s rant after, go see it now. Phenomenal movie by Christopher Nolan, the guy who did The Dark Knight, based off the book by Christopher Priest. Hop over to Netflix and rearrange the queue. If nothing else, go over to Jurassic Punk and download the trailer. The film is fantastic, but the trailer actually gives us everything I want to talk about this week.

A common term that gets thrown around in Hollywood is three-act structure. To be honest, it gets used a lot by people who don’t know much about storytelling, and they often try to pin this structure down to a rigid, unyielding formula (which tends to result in rigid, unyielding films). We have this structure in prose fiction, too, where we call it establishing the norm, introducing conflict, followed by resolution. Even in a magic trick, there’s the pledge, the turn, and the prestige (as explained by Michael Caine in the above-mentioned trailer).

At its simplest, any sort of storytelling has a beginning, a middle, and an end. To be more exact, every story needs these three stages. Not just in terms of page count, but in the way it develops. If your story’s done right, any audience member can tell you almost exactly when and where these parts begin and end.

On the other hand, a story that doesn’t have these three parts has a sort of... meandering quality to it. Characters fall into inaction, or they leap into full-tilt action that doesn’t seem to have any purpose to it. They run or drive aimlessly, or sometimes we get to see them repeat the same actions two or thee times.

This generally comes from writers only having one or two parts of a story. Maybe they had a great opening and a cool middle, but didn’t know how to end it. Or they came up with a cool opening and a clever end, but never figured out how those points connect. I’ve even seen a few folks write a very cool opening... and nothing else. There was a great set up and then the story sort of spiraled off into... nowhere.

Here’s a great little way to look at this rule of thumb. Jim Shooter, who was Editor-in-Chief at Marvel Comics back in the day, had a wonderful example of the perfect story-- the old nursery rhyme “Little Miss Muffett.” It’s got all the parts of a great literary classic. Now, drag your minds out of the gutter and follow along...

Little Miss Muffett sat on her tuffet, eating her curds and whey.

This is our beginning. We’ve introduced character, location, and action. This is also called establishing the norm. Were nothing else to happen in our story, Miss Muffett would probably just sit there all day eating spoonful after spoonful. Maybe once the sun went down she’d go home and watch the fight on pay-per-view or something, but odds are this probably would’ve been a day like any other for her.

Along came a spider, which sat down beside her.

This is the middle of our story—the second act if you will. Now we’ve got an adversary, and a set of actions which produce conflict between the adversary and our protagonist (most tuffets are only built for one, after all). Something has happened which is not part of Muffy the curd-and-whey-slayer’s normal day, and it’s going to make things change.

And frightened Miss Muffet away.

The end of the tale. The conflict has come to an end and the story has a resolution, even if it’s just Muffy lifting the hem of her dress and sprinting away. It’s not the longest third act on record, but there it is.

If you don’t want to admit you know nursery tales, look at The Matrix. The beginning is Neo in his normal life as he goes to clubs and tries to avoid agents. The middle is him waking up in “the real world,” learning new skills, and going to meet the Oracle. The end is him taking on the figurehead role they’re prepared him for (even though he’s not sure he’s ready for it) and going to rescue Morpheus. These aren’t beats I’ve selected at random or for timing reasons—they’re moments in the film when the audience immediately knows we’ve moved to a next major section of the story and in Neo’s growth as a character.

Now, there are a few little caveats to this, of course. Despite what many gurus say, three act structure is not some ironclad, unchanging rule. Many stories start in the middle and take a bit before they go back and explain the beginning. “Coming in at the action,” some folks like to call it (we talked about this a few months back in regards to horror stories). A Princess of Mars, the classic sci-fi novel by Edgar Rice Burroughs, actually begins at the very end of the tale, in the denouement, with the author inheriting a strange manuscript from his recently deceased uncle, John Carter.

All of this is fine, and there’s a great literary precedent for it. Some of my favorite stories work this way, in fact. What aspiring writers need to remember, though, that all these stories still have a beginning, middle, and end, even if they’ve been juggled around a bit in their tellings. The events have a definitive starting point. The characters have a baseline the audience sees them at. There’s a progression brought about by conflict and changes resulting from the conflict. And it all leads to a definitive conclusion.

(As a minor aside, this is why ending any story with “to be continued” immediately causes you to lose fifteen or twenty credibility points. It just means the writer hasn’t bothered with an actual ending.)

That leads us to the one question some of you have probably been wondering about since I started this little rant. Why do we need all this? What’s so important about these three parts?

They’re important because a beginning, middle, and end gives us character growth, and as I’ve said more than two or three times, good writing is about good characters. We need to see who they start off as, what changes them, and how the change affects them in the long run. Miss Muffet starts the day with her usual breakfast, but ends it fleeing in terror, probably never to return to her favorite tuffet again. Perhaps she’ll have some emotional scars and never be able to eat curds and whey again without being reminded of this terrible event. Whatever happens, we know it’s a real response that grew out of her experiences. Which makes her a memorable character.

After all, Miss Muffet’s story has been around for about four hundred years. We should all be so lucky.

So, next week, we’re going to play detective. No, it’s not like playing doctor, you perverts. We’re just going to talk a lot about motives and alibis, and how you always need them in your writing.

Speaking of which... get back to that writing, why don’t you?