Thursday, September 24, 2009

Secrets of the Order

I have been prodded to remind folks the Amazon link off there on the side has grown again. So... go hit the link.

What about that title? Sounds impressive, eh? Alas, the order we're talking about is a bit more mundane. It's not much of a secret, either, now that I think of it.

Well, too late now. You're already reading. Let's move on.

Structure, unbelievable as it may sound, is how your story is put together. It's the underlying shape and order that everything else hangs on. If you don't have structure, all you have is a pile. Even something as amazing as the Guggenheim still follows a lot of the basics of building construction.

Much like the physical architecture of buildings, there are certain rules a writer needs to follow with the structure of their story. And, much like with architecture, ignoring these rules often means the story will collapse. Or end up so unsightly nobody will want anything to do with it.

There are two types of story structure I want to rant about. One is linear structure. The other is dramatic structure. They're two separate things that should tie together if you're doing things correctly, in the same way that dialogue and character should tie together. Hopefully we'll have time and space here for both.

So, first up, here's a pop quiz. What does this mean?

Mqnw berctx yzuai sopdl fkgjh.

No clue? What if I put it like this...?

Ghijkl abcdef mnopqrs wxyz tuv.

A little easier for some of you to see the pattern? Yes and no? Okay, try this...?

Abcdefg hijklmnop qrstuv wxyz.

Ahhhh, well now it's obvious, isn't it?

I mentioned a while back that three act structure always needs a beginning, a middle, and an end. However, they don't always need to come in that order. A Princess of Mars begins with the frame story of Edgar Rice Burroughs inheriting a manuscript from his recently-deceased uncle, John Carter. The film The Prestige has a wonderful, interwoven, double-frame structure of a prisoner awaiting execution and reading the journal of his supposed victim, a man who had stolen the prisoner's journal and is relating what he discovers as he studies it. My upcoming novel, Ex-Heroes, has almost a dozen major flashbacks in it to a period before the beginning of the novel. And, of course, everyone remembers Pulp Fiction for its wonderful non-linear story.

One easy way you can check a story to make sure all these tricks work is to cut it up and put the bits in chronological order, like a timetable. This is the order the characters and the world are experiencing the story (as opposed to the reader). Does effect still follow cause? Are the actions and dialogue still motivated? If it starts to get fuzzy or questionable, that's not a good sign.

The other problem here is some people have taken that non-linear inch and run a few kilometers with it (mixed metaphor intentional). Since I can go a little bit non-linear, I can push the envelope and go a little more, and a little more, and a little... Well, the first example shows the problem with this. There comes a point when the narrative has been broken up with so many flashbacks, recollections, and frames-within-frames that you've just got gibberish.

Oh, sure, if you spent twenty minutes or so studying that first example you would've eventually figured out it was all the letters of the alphabet. I don't doubt that at all. The same could be said about any number of non-linear books or screenplays. Given enough time, a spreadsheet program, and a bottle of rum, most of us can make sense of just about any story.

Thing is, Timmy, I doubt many of you read this collection of rants with the hope that someday you'll understand what I'm talking about. You read it because you want to understand something now, not for me to show off by giving you an incomprehensible puzzle of verbs and nouns and clauses to work out over the next week or so.

Of course, all audiences feel this way. So while it's okay to mix a story up a bit, at the end of the day your reader has to be able to follow the story. Flashbacks and frames are great, but, like so many things, need to be used responsibly and with moderation. Bruce Joel Rubin, the Academy Award-winning screenwriter of Ghost, recently made the keen observation that stories, especially film stories, are experienced through the gut, not through the mind. The moment your audience has to go into their head to understand the story--you've lost them. It shatters the flow and brings them out of experiencing the story and into, on some level, analyzing it. So the last thing you want is so many non-linear elements that the reader has to stop for each one and figure out how it relates to the last twenty or thirty.

This is also a good time to mention this little oft-occurring problem...


The thing that immediately sticks out is the element that has no business being there. In the midst of our flowing, structured story (the alphabet) the 456 is something that ties to nothing before or after it and has no bearing on anything else in the story. It is, to use a previous example, the speech about Masada in that early scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Depending on the story, the 456 may be a clue for stories yet to come, a really cool dance/ action/ comedy sequence, or something none of here can even imagine, but if it isn't really part of the story then... it shouldn't be in the story.

Hmmmmm... this isn't huge, but I think if I continue with dramatic structure this is going to get kind of sprawling. So let's call this good for now while it's still readable.

Next week, I'll continue my mindless rant about structure with a discussion of drama and kayaking.

Until then, go write.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Check Out That Back

Looks like no one's been reading lately. That's okay. I'm used to people not listening to me.

And now you're probably all at Horror Realm.


Then again, maybe I just need to rant about better topics.

Speaking of which, we were going to discuss that ever-growing backside of yours. And when I say backside, what I really mean is backstory. They're pretty much interchangeable, because nobody wants to look at your backstory unless it is just perfect.

A few months back there was a response here from loyal follower #11 (who has since moved on to read Craig Mazin's very informative blog, The Artful Writer) that rather than getting tighter, he often found his manuscripts growing as he did draft after draft. The characters became more nuanced, the story filled out, and the page count went up. I've had this happen, too. I think it was the second or third draft of The Suffering Map that introduced Theresa, the cleaning woman who overheard many things that took place at the Memory Lane antique shop. And I've also mentioned police detective Barroll and his partner, Lt. Cheryl Vacha.

Y'see, Timmy, a lot of stories get bulked up on backstory, because people keep introducing stuff in draft four, eight, or fifteen and assume this is essential material simply because it's in a later draft. After all, I said a while back that by your sixth draft you should be more or less solid, yes? So by my own words, anything in the sixth draft must be essential, right?


What I eventually came to realize was that these weren't later drafts of The Suffering Map. This was still me working on the first draft. I hadn't figured out who these people were, what their motivation was, or why they all looked at each other nervously at a mention of Uncle Louis. What I thought was refinement and polish was still just me getting the raw materials together. The serious cutting hadn't even begun yet.

The real problem with backstory is that it means moving back, and you want your story to go forward. Every page of character history means two pages you have to write to get the story to a new point. God help you if you decide to start with ten or twenty pages of backstory, because that means you're in the hole on page one.

Not to mention the fact that so much backstory is completely unnecessary. At least four or five of you keep reading this collection of rants even though you have no idea what my brother's name is, the name of the first girl I kissed, or what the first story I wrote was about. Does it keep any of you from absorbing or mocking what I say here? Not at all. It's unnecessary.

It all comes down to what the reader needs to know. I gave the example once that no one talks about Masada at any point during Raiders of the Lost Ark because that film has nothing to do with Masada. In a similar vein, we don't need to know how Ferris Bueller got his two-tone leather jacket, what Atticus Finch's mother was like, where Hannibal Lecter studied for his doctorate, or which mission the Colonial Marines were on before the events of Aliens.

Keep in mind, I'm not saying that these aren't interesting stories. In the hands of skilled writers, many of them would probably be very entertaining. The key thing here is all these stories were in the hands of skilled writers, and those writers chose not to include any of this. I was reading a film review a few weeks back and the critic, Nathan Rabin, made the very keen observation that stories like Star Wars and The Lord of the Rings saga succeed despite their elaborate, epic backstories-- not because of them. Backstory can be an amazing, powerful thing if it's used at the right time and in the right quantities.

If it helps, think of being a writer like being a bodybuilder. One of the skills of being a competitive bodybuilder is to develop all of your muscle groups equally. You can't ignore your shoulders while you do constant abdominal work, and your legs will suffer if you focus too much on your arms. More to the point, we've all seen the people with the unusual physiques who do these unbalanced workouts. The folks whose arms hang away from their bodies or whose shoulders always hunch forward. The ones with no neck. These people developed one muscle group so much it overpowers others and distorts the overall image. They're phenomenal muscles, don't get me wrong , and they could probably crush my flimsy writer hands with... well, whatever part of their anatomy you picture we're talking about... but they fail as bodybuilders because they've developed things in the wrong proportion.

If Mr. Berenson the grade school teacher suddenly displays an amazing aptitude for wiping out ninjas and hijackers with nothing but a stapler and his bare hands, it might be worth mentioning he spent seven years in the Special Forces and how he ended up teaching kids the right way to use an apostrophe. However, if the PTA meeting got snowed in and they're just sitting around waiting for a plow, telling that same story is now just a bit of excess padding.

There is a flipside to this, of course. To stick with the bodybuilder analogy, it's when the writer doesn't put in anything and the characters are left looking like anorexics. The readers are left wondering who all these characters are, why this action is happening, and why everyone speaks cryptically about "The Omega."

Your characters need a backstory, believe me. It has to be there, and you as the writer should know it backward and forward. But that doesn't mean you need to tell all of that backstory and nuance to the reader. A lot of it's going to be irrelevant. Some of it you're going to want to keep shrouded in mystery.

And, yes, some of it you're going to need to tell.

Next time, it struck me that I've been ranting for ages about stuff that goes into stories, but I've never really said anything about the stories themselves. So let's hope the deadline gods are kind to me so I can pontificate about that for a bit.

Until then, go write.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Bring on the Bad Guys!

Very sorry I didn't get to post anything last week. Spent the time trying to hammer out a last few wrinkles in my current project... and hopefully succeeding. Guess we'll know soon enough.

But enough about me and my problems. Let's talk about your problems. To be more exact, let's talk about the people who are causing problems for your characters.

The technical term for this person is the antagonist. He, she, or it is the entity that's opposing your hero or heroine. Simply put, it's the bad guy. There are cases where the antagonist is actually the good guy in the story, or at least the more respectable one, but those tend to be much larger, Shakespearean-level stories (well, when they're done right) than anything most of us are dealing with. There are also cases where the antagonist and the villain are two separate characters (yes, it can happen-- look at The Fugitive). So for ease of discussion, I'm just going to be tossing stuff out with the understanding that the antagonist is the bad guy for whatever story we're working on.

(That title's another pop-culture reference, by the way, but only the older geeks will get it...)

The bad guy can make or break your story. Whether it's an enemy general, a high school mean girl, a homicidal sociopath, or even just the overbearing boss at the office, the bad guy has to be just as solid and well developed as your main character. How many books have you read or movies have you seen which failed because the villain was just a two-dimensional caricature tossing out random challenges and "threatening" lines.

So, a few things to keep in mind when crafting your antagonist. Like most things I toss out, they're not all hard-fast rules, but I think if you look back over some of your favorite books and films, you'll see that the most memorable bad guys tend to be...

Smart -- No one's saying the bad guy has to have a degree from Oxford, but if you've got a gullible character who has trouble opening closet doors and can't string two thoughts together, it's going to be tough convincing your audience he or she somehow rose to the position of being a real threat. There's book smart, street smart, and even just plain old animal instinct. But the reader has to believe your bad guy has a brain in his or her head. Remember, few things are more intimidating than a villain who's a step ahead of the hero--especially when that puts him or her a few steps ahead of the audience, too. In Die Hard, when Hans Gruber quickly assumes the identity of a cowering hostage, we all think John McClane is smart for asking his name and department... until we realize Hans assumed this would happen and already memorized the office directories.

Motivated -- The hero has a believable motivation, and the bad guy should, too. There has to be a reason they're doing whatever it is they're doing. Robbing homes, starting wars, humiliating people, killing kids at a summer camp-- none of these things are done just for the heck of it. In fact, one of the worst motivations a character can have is "just because," which is probably the only thing worse that saying "because he's insane!!" If the writer knows why these acts are happening, it helps flesh out the bad guy and make him or her more than a forgettable cut-out. The men who betray Edmond Dantes in The Count of Monte Cristo all have different reasons for screwing him over, but every one of them has a solid motive for sending their friend off to prison.

The Good Guy - This one's definitely not hard/fast, but it's an important one to consider, especially when you look at the last one. Many of the best villains honestly think they're doing the right thing, so their motivation is similar to the hero's (even if their methods are a bit questionable). Magneto in X-Men saw one of his subsets of humanity (the Jews) almost exterminated in World War II, and so he's determined not to let that happen to the other subset he belongs to (the mutants). The flipside of that is Josef Mengele in The Boys From Brazil, who honestly believes what he's been doing is the right thing, even though pretty much every historian on the planet would disagree.

Doesn't act like the bad guy -- It's easy to make someone the obvious bad guy. How many romantic comedies have you seen where the love interest starts off paired up with some who is so obviously not right for them? It's easy to have the third leg of that romantic triangle be a jerk or a bitch. When the bad guy straddles that gray line, they're a lot harder to write off. They also tend to be much creepier, because once their true nature is revealed it becomes clear how manipulative this character is. Consider Nazi Colonel Landa in Tarantino's recent Inglorious Basterds. He's a pleasant, polite, smiling goof who laughs at every joke...and yet the audience can't help but be on edge around him because of it, wondering when and if the other shoe's going to drop.

Calm - again not a hard fast rule, but like I was just saying, the quiet, friendly villain is almost always scarier than the shrieking, raging one. Just like with heroes, someone who's calm is in complete control of the situation. Part of the eeriness of the original Jason Vorhees was he was slow and quiet. Never rushed, never crazed. Who was really scarier in the original Star Wars-- Darth Vader who psychokinetically strangles a guy? Or Grand Moff Tarkin, who blackmails the princess with the life of a whole planet... and then coldly wipes it out anyway after she cooperates? And didn't Vader jump up a few creepy notches in Empire Strikes Back when he calmly invited the heroes to join him at the dinner table? Heck, consider that when we first meet Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs (either the book or the film) he's meticulously pleasant, doesn't make one threat, doesn't raise his voice... and leaves us squirming in our seats.

Limited -- When I talked about superpowers a few weeks back, I mentioned that the more believable tales tended to involve characters with limits. An all-powerful antagonist is just as boring as an all-powerful hero. Superiors, vulnerabilities, emotional weaknesses-- there has to be something that convinces people from early on that the antagonist can be overcome. Every tyrannical office manager has to answer to a supervisor, who has to answer to a junior executive, who has to answer to a senior executive. Captain Barbossa had a few unlucky gold coins. Randall Flagg is nightmarishly powerful in The Stand, but most of his power stems from people believing he's nightmarishly powerful. Bad guys need their own swords hanging over their heads.

Finally, one or two things to avoid. First, you don't want your bad guy to be a dupe. It's almost always frustrating on some level to get to the end and find out the bad guy has been blackmailed/ brainwashed/ manipulated into the role of the bad guy. If you saw the recent G.I.Joe film, you probably remember how silly and pointless it felt when it was revealed the Baroness was really a good woman who'd been hypnotized by... nanotech... or something. Not saying it's impossible to make this little twist work, but it has to be played with carefully because it's one of those elements that bad writers have pushed to the edge and now it's teetering on cliché.

Also, you probably don't want your bad guy to have some secret, hidden past ties to your hero. Ever since we found out Darth Vader was Luke's father (and I would apologize for the spoilers but come on! Where have you been?) it's been an easy out for writers to drop in this sort of thing as a weak attempt to flesh out characters. Janie and Megan were best friends back in grade school. Dillon and Dutch served in the same military unit. Jake and Mitch used to be in love with the same woman. These sort of reveals seem clever at first glance, but more often than not they're pointless and have no real bearing on the actual story. If you've got some of these ties in your manuscript, try cutting them out and see now much they really affect the story. If you've got less than ten lines of rewrites to do after removing them, you probably didn't need them.

And there you have it. Whether your bad guy is a bionic ninja warlord from the future bent on conquering the Earth or just Britta from fifth period English who wants to be prom queen no matter what, hopefully something in this little rant will strike a chord with you, one way or another.

Next week--and it will be next week, I promise--I'd like to rant a little about your backside. It's getting a little sizeable, and not in that good way...

Until then, go write. Go! Who's stopping you?