Thursday, August 27, 2009

Getting in on the Action

Well, since not one of you voted last week, I got to seize power again and decide what to rant about this week with no input or opinions. Viva Democracy! The system works!

So, speaking of things working, action can mean a bunch of things. It can be Yakko finally getting a backbone and standing up to his abusive boss. It can be Wakko fighting off cyborg ninjas from the future. It can be Dot running from a serial killer deep in the forest one night because she was doing naughty things at summer camp.

We all want to do cool action, because it's fun and it's memorable and it makes producers think "this would look great on the big screen-- give that writer a quarter-million dollars!" But most of us have probably read a book or three with painful action descriptions, and any script reader can tell you about the dozens they dropped because the action scenes were sleep-inducing at best.

Probably the most common problem I see with action is a desire to put in all the action. Every single instant of it. Every gunshot, every punch, each flail of the legs as someone tries to climb up a cliff, and all the individual roars of an angry dinosaur.

Thing is, too much detail slows action down. It can be the most amazing bit of kung fu fighting ever, but each time the writer pauses to describe the harsh open-palm strike which is blocked with a swift overhand block which rolls over the wrist and into a hold to create an opening for two quick punches, one to the face, one to the... man, that should be half a second of fighting, but it's two lines here. That is one slooow, overwritten fight.

Putting in all the action also tends to get messy from a vocabulary point of view. Bad enough the writer is putting in all seventy punches, but they also know that seeing "punch" seventy times on the page is going to get dull. So suddenly the combatants are punching, hitting, striking, whamming, banging, thrusting, pounding, blasting... It starts feeling needlessly complex, and yes, you should also notice that it starts sounding vaguely pornographic as well.

Now, compare all that to this...

Their hands were a blur of strikes, blocks, and counterstrikes.

I didn't give as much information, but I did convey a much faster, intense scene, and with far fewer words. Fewer words means a faster read, which means a faster fight.

In my mind, action is a lot like character descriptions. You want to give broad strokes and only use fine details when absolutely necessary. Let the reader fill in a lot of it-- because odds are they will anyway.

Action, by it's very nature, is usually fast, so use this as a rule of thumb. If something is only taking a few moments to happen in your story, it should only take a few moments to read. If there's an important detail that will matter later in the story, sure, add it in. But otherwise, keep it clean and simple.

Another key note... it has to be possible for the reader to visualize the action. One screenplay I read a while back had gladiatorial games where one man was pitted against three hundred. It actually said that in the script-- "Now he fights 300 men with just his sword." This was going on in the background, for the record.

Gigantic action scenes involving a hundred thousand people are cool, but they're hard for someone to keep in their mind. That's why such huge battles tend to concentrate on smaller, individual conflicts. In Tolkien's The Two Towers, thousands fight at Helm's Deep, but we're mostly concerned with Aragorn, Gimli, and Legolas. When Dan Abnett writes about the Tanith First and Only on a battlefront, he tends to focus on Gaunt, Mkoll, or Rawne, not on the regiment as a whole. Saving Private Ryan is about World War Two, but it's mainly about this one small unit of soldiers.

Visualizing can also be a common knowledge problem. It's cool that the author knows all the Japanese names for every kick, punch, strike, and block from each of fifteen fighting styles... but does the reader know them? Do they need to? From an audience point of view, it there a huge difference between a hail of bullets from an M-16 and the spray of lead from an AK-47? Anything that makes your readers pause to consider what's going on is slowing down the action and it's breaking the flow of your writing. Especially watch for this in genre material, where writers can be making up completely unique weapons and fighting styles. It's great that Nimwadda is a Zonbovac master with his gwerttig, but it's a lot easier to visualize if I'm told he's a world champion axe-fighter... even if it's a special goblin axe.

A special note for screenwriters. A lot of action stuff gets redone on set, for a variety of reasons. Time is one. Money's another. Plus, let's face it... most stunt coordinators have a better idea how to set up a cool-looking fight on screen than most writers do. That's their job, after all. They're also keenly aware of what's possible-- and what's safe-- for the stunt teams and actors to do. I heard a funny story from the live action Spawn movie, about the petulant writer/ director who was angry a stuntman wouldn't do one stunt sequence he'd blocked out... because it almost certainly would kill the stuntman.

In a screenplay, worry about setting the mood and tone of an action sequence more than a shot-by-shot description of the sequence itself. The swordfights in The Princess Bride have a very different tone than the ones in Highlander. The slugfests in Rocky are not like the ones in Hellboy. Skim over the action itself, just make it clear what kind of fight it is, which way it's going, and who wins.

As an example, let's look at the lobby battle in The Matrix. Neo steps through the metal detector wearing a hundred guns he borrowed from his grandfather's arsenal and then it's mass carnage. From the moment we see Neo's boots coming out of the revolving door to the moment he and Trinity step into the elevator is almost precisely three minutes, fifteen seconds of bullets, karate, acrobatics, and aggressive redecorating.

How long is it in the script?

About half a page. Ten lines.

Neo and Trinity walk in, he guns down the guards. More guards come, they're gunned down, and our two heroes continue on their way, cool as ice. That's it.

However, it's still okay to note key elements of a sequence. In The Princess Bride, we need to know that Inigo and the Man in Black both switch hands during their swordfight, but we don't need to know which steps their blades clash on as they work their way up the staircase. Watch a couple films with elaborate action sequences, like Equilibrium, Brotherhood of the Wolf, or even (dare I say it) Attack of the Clones. There are long stretches of action, but what stands out? What catches your eye? Remember the "hallway of death" in Equilibrium? We remember the auto-loaders in Cleric's sleeves, his roll onto the "weeble" clips, and him kicking up the rifle near the end. There's a lot more to the scene than that, but that's all you'd need to focus on.

So that's where the action is, if you'll pardon the pun. And if you won't, well... you should've voted when you had the chance.

Next week, we bring on the bad guys and talk about why John Saxon never got to play a good screen villain, but Alan Rickman did.

Until then, take action. And go write.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Say Say Say

Michael Jackson, as promised.

So, this week I wanted to talk about... well, talking. I prattled on about dialogue descriptors just a few weeks back, and the simple power of said. However, a few recent things I've read over the past couple weeks-- plus one god-awful movie I saw which was supposed to be about a real American hero-- have had me thinking about dialogue as a whole.

Dialogue really is the lifeblood of fiction. Sounds corny, I know, but it's true. If you've got dialogue problems in a novel or short story it's really bad. In a screenplay it's pretty much fatal. It's a killer because everyone knows what people sound like. They may not all disarm warheads, fight ninjas, or race dinosaurs, but everybody talks to people, so it's the first place a writer's work can get picked apart.

So, here are five easy things to spot in your writing which can keep dialogue from flowing naturally.

Extra descriptors-- Even if you're using said, you don't always need to use it. After a point, it should be apparent who's talking. Look at this...


Tom cracked his knuckles. "You really want to do this?"

"I do," said Jerry.

"No holds barred?"

"All out. Mano e mano."

"You're going to get hurt."

"I better, for your sake."

"Cocky little rodent, aren't you?"


No problem keeping track of who's talking, is there? Plus with less words it's leaner and faster. You can feel the tension building in the exchanges because you're not getting slowed down by excess words.

Not only that, once you've got speech patterns down for your characters, you should need descriptors even less. In my book Ex-Heroes, Gorgon's dialogue could never get confused with Stealth's. In Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indy doesn't speak the same way as Belloq, and neither of them sound like Toht, the black-coated Gestapo agent. Their voices identify them just as well as a header would.

Spoken names-- It's very rare to address someone by name. Pay attention during your next phone call, or look at The Road by Cormac McCarthy. We never learn the character's names because they never say them. Why would they? They're the only two people around, and have been for ages now. Look at that last example up above. Tom and Jerry know each other, and we get the sense they're speaking directly to one another, so they don't have to keep saying each other's name again and again. It just starts sounding kind of cartoony.


"You know, Fred..."

"Yes, Barney?"

"I've been meaning to talk to you about Wilma. Fred, do you remember that week Betty was away and you had to work late a lot down at the quarry?"

"Barney, you son of a--"

"We didn't mean to, Fred. It just happened! It was--Fred, no! Put the club down, Fred! FRED!!!"


Even if you're doing it a bit more seriously than I just did, spoken names can also come across as a bit fake. It's the author acknowledging the audience may be having trouble keeping track, and throwing in a name is the easiest way to deal with it, rather than the best way. Remember, if you've got two characters who have been introduced, it's really rare that they'll need to keep using each other's names. Especially if they're the only ones there.

Cool lines-- D'you remember that bit in The Incredibles when Syndrome reveals his master plan? "And when everybody's super... no one will be." It's an ugly truth--everything becomes mundane when there's no baseline. If everyone's a millionaire, being a millionaire isn't all that great. If everyone on your basketball team is eight feet tall, who's the tall guy? If anybody can hit a bullseye at 100 yards out, hitting a bullseye doesn't really mean anything, does it?

The same holds for dialogue. We all want to have a memorable line or three that sticks in the reader's mind forever. The thing is, they're memorable because they stand out. Even in Arnold Schwarzenegger's old films, when he had piles of one-liners, he also had piles of lines no one remembers that just advanced the story. We all remember the first line he says to the Predator, but do you remember the first line he says to Dylan? What about any line he gave to Hawkins, the skinny guy?

Fun side note--believe it or not, Hawkins is screenwriter Shane Black, the guy who wrote Lethal Weapon, The Long Kiss Goodnight, and Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang.

If you try to make every line a cool line, or even most of them, you're shooting yourself in the foot because none of them are going to stand out. When everything's turned up to eleven, it's all at eleven-- it's monotone.

"As you know..." - If you take nothing else from today's rant, take this. Find every sentence in your writing that starts with this phrase or one of it's halfbreed cousins like "You know, (insert character name)...".

Once you've found them, delete them ALL.

This is probably the clumsiest way to do exposition there is. Think about it.

"Yakko, you know I get grumpy if I don't eat." If he does know, maybe you should just get to your point.

"As you know, Wakko, my birthday is coming up..." Well if Wakko knows, why does the speaker need to point it out?

"You know, Dot, we've been friend for twelve years now..." Did Dot have a head injury and needs to be reminded of this? If so, cool, if not...

"As you know, men, this war against the Zentradi has been going on for seven years now..." Seven years and you've got to tell a room full of soldiers who they've been fighting against and for how long? Where did these folks get shipped in from?

If you've got a really solid manuscript, you might be able to get away with doing this once. Just once. As long as you don't do it your first ten pages or so. Past that, get out your editorial safety scissors and start cutting.

Grammatically Correct - very few people speak in perfect, grammatically correct English, aside from a few freaks with inferiority complexes. We all speak differing degrees of colloquial English. Our verbs don't always line up with our nouns. Tenses don't always match. Fact is, a lot of "spoken" English looks awful on the page. If you've got the grammar function on in Word (and, seriously, why is it on? Kill that thing right now. And the spellchecker while you're at it), spoken English is a nightmare.

This is where a lot of new writers choke, because they can't reconcile the words on the page with the voices in their heads (so to speak). Thus, they end up with several characters, all of whom speak in a precisely regulated manner which seems wooden, affected, and does not flow by any definition of the term. To help beat this, you want to have someone else read your words out loud. Not you, because you know where to pause and emphasize. See what someone else does with it, how natural the words really sound, and how well they really flow.

And that's that. Five things you should be able to spot and fix with almost no effort at all.

Next week... I don't know. Part of me was thinking about talking about action scenes, but I've also been bouncing around some thoughts about antagonists. Any preferences?

Regardless, go write.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Be Smarter Than The Average Bear

So, Booboo, this week's title has two references. One's pop culture, of course, but the other one hearkens way, way back to an article I read in Writer's Digest when I was in my first year of college. This was when we were between sessions of the Continental Congress.

This is going to be a bit vague at first, so please forgive me.

The man contributing the article was a writer on a sitcom, and his boss had tossed one of his scripts back at him with the words "You have to earn the right to use the bear suit." When the baffled writer asked for an explanation, he was told this story. I believe it was a Honeymooners episode in the original telling, but I'm not sure so I'm going to substitute in characters from another sitcom as I tell it to you. Trust me, it won't make a difference...

So, Yakko, Wakko, and Dot decide they're going to go camping up in the mountains. But Dot's been a bit uppity lately so Yakko and Wakko come up with an idea. They get a grizzly bear suit and stash it in the car. When they get up there, Yakko will sneak away and put the costume on, then "attack" the campsite. Wakko will play along, Dot will get a good scare and get her comeuppance. Loads of fun.

Well, they get up to the campsite and Yakko heads into the woods with the costume, but he gets lost and can't find his way back. Meanwhile, a real grizzly ends up wandering into camp and rummaging around. Dot is petrified and Wakko decides to have some fun with "Yakko" by making it seem like the bear is--

Look, do I really need to explain this any further? You've all seen this story at least a hundred times, yes? It was such a well-received gag everybody copied it. And continued to copy it. And they're still doing it today.

The bear suit is a tired gag. It's a cliché. It's something we've all seen again and again and again and again, in books, comics, television shows, and movies. The two identical characters that confuse people. The funny new catchphrase or non-sequitor reference. The insane villain. The character who gets amnesia or loses their superpowers. All of these are things people have seen so many times they've gone past yawning and just roll their eyes.

Oftentimes, the bear suit is the path of least resistance. It's the easiest way to deal with a need or problem in the writer's story and the quickest way to create an obstacle. And a lot of people tend to jump at the first solution they can find, rather than look for the best solution.

And that's really the problem. Since so many people jump at the bear suit, it's common. It's dull. Editors and producers have seen it a hundred times this month alone. If they're going through your work and they find that dusty old thing laying around, your manuscript instantly goes into the big pile on the left.

Let's try a little exercise. Here are three pretty standard plot devices.

--Two high schoolers get left alone in their palatial home when their parents go away for a week.

--Six teenagers head off into the woods to restore the old summer camp by the lake.

--A man completely focused on his career has to spend a long weekend with a flighty blonde who loves animals.

You probably got an immediate idea off each one. If your first thoughts were throw a wild party, get picked off by a serial killer, and fall in love, don't feel too bad. What matters is where you go from there. Toss out that first thought and come up with another one. Then toss that one and come up with a third. Toss it again and scribble down a fourth.

Y'see, Timmy, this is one of those complicated points of writing where it's hard to give a guideline. Often, when you're writing, you want to go with your gut. You want your words to be honest and not have a lot of analysis and formulae and overthinking behind them.

At the same time, however, you want to be careful about going with your first thoughts, because odds are they're a lot of other people's first thoughts, too. This is also why serious writers have to read a lot, and why serious screenwriters need to see a lot of movies. If you don't know what's out there, you might already have the bear suit on and not even know it. Heck, yours may be completely moth-eaten and you think it's going to scare someone in the woods.

Now, here's the catch. As I mentioned above, you can earn the right to use the bear suit. If you've already got a solid track record, if everything around it is gold (or at least well-polished silver), every now and then you can get away with using the old gag. Christopher Priest used one of the most tired ideas in literature for the ending of The Prestige, but did it so well it still blew people away. Stephen King took the tired idea of the Indian burial ground and then took it past the first or second idea to very creepy and popular third idea.

Again though-- that's the exception, not the rule. If you want to do this writing thing for real, your first decision can't be to reach for the bear suit.

Next week, I'm finally going to do a Michael Jackson memorial pop culture reference. I would've done one sooner but, well... I didn't care that much.

Oh, and if you've got a few dollars to spare, I have been gently jabbed by mine editor to shamelessly remind you all Cthulhu Unbound 2 is now for sale. Check out the Amazon link over there on the side, pick it up, and feel free to mock my contribution to it.

And even if you buy it, shipping means you'll still have time to go write this week.

So get to it.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

The Draft

Bloody hell. Is it Thursday again already?

Whose idea was this ranty blog, anyway...?

Anyway, what I wanted to toss out this week was a rough outline of how I generally go about things. I've given lots of general suggestions, but I thought it might be cool to actually show a step by step, solid example of how I take a project from a rough idea to something I'll show friends to something I consider worth showing to publishers/ producers/ contest readers/ and so on.

Plus it's an easy one to write up and I've got to do one more article and a sidebar before the weekend.

As always, before going into this, I want to remind everyone of the golden rule. Just because this works for me doesn't mean it will work for you. There's a better than average chance it won't, in fact. But maybe it will spark a few thoughts or make you look at things in a new way

1st Draft-- For me, this is just the "get it done" stage. I don't worry much about catching typos or crafting every subtle moment in the plot. I just want to finish this draft with a beginning, an end, and the majority of points in between.

I tend to skip around a lot in the first draft, which means I could start with almost anything. I'll scribble down random beats or dialogue exchanges that occurred to me while the idea was fermenting in my head and drop them more or less where I think they'd go. I talked a little bit last week how I got started on Ex-Heroes.

At this early stage, if I get stuck on something (an awkward conversation or complex action scene), I'll just skip it for now. I know I can work out exactly how Yakko convinced Wakko to give him a pistol later, so I'd rather keep moving than stay on this point too long and risk getting blocked on the whole thing (too long being a completely subjective, case-by-case term). Again, for me, the most important thing is to get it done. It's a lot easier to think about the little things when the big things aren't looming over you.

I also don't hold back here at all. I let dialogue, descriptions, and action scenes go on forever. I know I'll be cutting eventually, so there's no reason to worry about length now. I mean, if you wanted to find a pound of gold, you wouldn't dig up 1.1 pounds of soil, hope for the best, and just call it a day.

No one sees this draft but me.

2nd Draft-- Now it's time to smooth it out. All those little bits I skipped I need to go back and fill in. All those awkward knots need to be worked out. A lot of the time I'll find that, because I can now see a lot of these elements in relation to the whole story, the answers to these problems are more apparent.

The goal now is to have a readable manuscript. No more little notes to myself or trailing paragraphs that need to get connected somehow. Someone should be able to pick this up and read it start to finish without thinking they lost a few pages or only got my notes on a chapter.

Keep in mind this doesn't mean I do show it to people. It just means I should be able to. Really, the only person who might see this is my lady-love, and not even her always. Sometimes she has to wait.

A few people have argued with me these two drafts really just amount to me doing a first draft in two stages. That may be true, but they're not writing the ranty blog, are they?

Okay then, so... now I step away for a couple of days. Maybe a week. Don't look at it, try not to think too much about it. And then...

3rd Draft--Stephen King says to start cutting on draft two, but as I said, my draft two is what some people may call a solid first draft. As such, I usually wait until draft three to start slashing. This is where I hunt down adverbs, adjectives, pointless dialogue descriptors, and so on. Two fun rules I've mentioned before--

2nd draft = 1st draft - 10%

one adverb per page, four adjectives

One thing I really go after here is the padding phrases I tend to drop in (sort of, somewhat, kind of, more or less) that don't really do anything. As I've mentioned before, one of my regular editors at work has dubbed this awful habit of mine Somewhat Syndrome. Feel free to pass that one along.

By this time I've gone over the whole manuscript at least twice, so some bigger cuts should be visible. That rant Wakko gives about socialized medicine. Dot's flashback to the first time she got drunk in college. That long, meticulous description of Yakko loading his pistol. That's some beautiful writing there, but is it actually doing anything?

This is also when I can usually spot structure issues. In larger stories, it's not uncommon to have "floating" events that are important, but aren't tied to a solid point in the script. This one may be here right now, but having all of the story in my head lets me realize it would work better there, and it would be a more solid fit.

If I haven't already, this is when I let the lady love have a look. She's my first set of eyes to let me know I screwed up something and I'm too close to see it.

All things considered, this is usually two or three weeks of full-time work for me.

4th Draft--This is the first big polish. I go through sentence by sentence, looking for words that come up too often or stilted dialogue. I also make sure all the cuts and swaps from the last draft haven't messed anything up. Are the character arcs still smooth? Logic chains are still complete? Are the transitions still good? Are the parallels parallel? Did this character turn into a man for a few minutes in the middle of the chapter? Did Yakko just pull a gun out of nowhere?

When the fourth draft is all shiny, this is the one I show folks for comments. I generally send it out to five people. They're a carefully selected bunch, all of whom have some level of literary background, and I don't think there's one among them I've known for less than five years. One's actually been reading and critiquing my work for over two decades now, and she still doesn't cut me any slack. The key thing is they're all people who will give honest, useful criticism. There won't be huge, unexplained X's across the page, meaningless feedback, or cartoons in the margins.

Well, not often, anyway.

This goes off into the world and it may be a month or two before I look at it again. The trick here is to resist messing with it while those people are looking at it.

5th Draft-- Now I've gotten notes back from whatever folks I cajoled into reading this thing. I sit down with all the comments and go through the whole thing page by page. What did everyone think of page one? What comments were there on page two? How's page three look? As I'm doing this, I've also got my own copy of the 4th draft that I'm using as a "master document." This way I can get all the notes assembled in the relevant place and make whatever changes are required. This document is more or less the 5th draft, and it can take another two weeks or more to finish it with a full book manuscript.

I mentioned above that I try to get five people to make comments for me, and that's partly so I can get a broader sampling on each issue that comes up. If four people like something but one doesn't, odds are I'll call that good. Nobody's going to get every joke or like every chapter. If three don't and two do (and of course I do, or I wouldn't've written it), I'll sit and give it a good look. And if none of them like it, well... I'm smart enough to know when I've screwed up something doesn't work.

6th Draft-- This one's yet another smoothing, polishing draft. Now that I made those tweaks and changes from my reader's notes, I need to make sure everything works again. So, yet another line by line reading, tweaking and adjusting as I go.

And honestly, at this point... this is when I give up. There is only so much a given writer--in this case, me-- can do with a given story. There comes a point when further work accomplishes nothing and, as the Brits so eloquently put it, you're just wanking. If it's not ready to show to a publisher by now, it probably means I screwed up something right at the start on a very basic level. Perhaps when I first thought I could adapt Pilgrim's Progress into a hardcore gothic romance.

There's also a danger that if you keep trying to come up with reasons to do another draft, you'll keep finding them. I'm sure we all know someone who's just been working on the same manuscript for years and years and years because they've got another one or two drafts to put it through. After a while of that, your story stops looking like a coherent tale and a bit more like the Winchester Mystery House.

This pattern may not work for you. Everyone's going to handle things a little differently. I got to talk to Kevin Smith a while back and he said that he wrote screenplays on a scene-by-scene basis. He'd write a few pages, read, revise, read, smoke a bit, revise again, read, polish it, and move on to the next few pages. So by the time his script was completed, he's reached what I'm calling the end of draft four.

Y'see, Timmy, the important thing, as always, is not how you do it but that you do it. It's annoying as hell, and all-too-often used as an excuse, but there is something to that old chestnut "writing is re-writing." You can't expect something to be publication-ready the moment it leaves your fingertips. Doing this professionally means going over a piece again and again rather than mailing off your first draft while you move on to your next glorious and epic-worthy idea. If you're not willing to put the extra effort into your writing, it's always going to end up in that large pile on the left.

Next week, Booboo, I want to discuss those picnic baskets the campers have. Sort of.

Until then, go write.

Or rewrite.