Thursday, December 23, 2010

The Most Wonderful Time of the Year

Ahhh, Christmas. Time for family and friends. Eggnog and presents. Gathering around the fireplace and maybe watching a few holiday classics on the tube.

Also a great time for psychopaths, invading aliens, and big explosions.

I should probably explain that last bit.

Are you sitting comfortably?

Then we’ll begin.

In a way, holidays make for great settings because they come pre-packaged for a writer. Much in the same way saying “Angelina” conjures the mental image of a certain actress, I can tell you “the neighborhood is decorated for Christmas,” and I’ve set the stage. Just like that.

Oh, sure, I can go into more detail if I really need to. It might be very important that the Hendersons decorated that small pine on their front lawn and the Applebaums have mistletoe over their front door. And maybe that old Mister King has nothing on his lawn. But I’ve set out all the broad strokes with just six words. Even if the description never went any further, you know what Sawmill Drive or Sunset Boulevard look like. How many pages of writing does that save me?

Major holidays are great shorthand for the time of year and tone of a story. This can help you make the ideas behind your story even more powerful. Is there anything more romantic than meeting your true love on Valentine’s Day? We almost expect serial killers on Halloween. The 4th of July is just brimming with patriotism here in the U.S.

Y’know, it just struck me while writing that... How many countries have “Independence from England” as a national holiday? Dozens, right? And what’s England got? Guy Fawkes Day. They celebrate the day they didn’t let religious extremists take over.


If your setting lines up with your story, you’ve almost got a theme going there. If your characters are discussing peace on earth while decorating a Christmas tree, good for you. Maybe they’re talking about forgotten promises at New Year’s or being grateful at Thanksgiving. So if you’ve got a story that follows some holiday-centric ideas, it might be worth setting it at said holiday.

That being said there’s also a Clarke’s Law-type issue to consider here. Sometimes the best story to set at a given holiday is, in fact, the worst story for that holiday. For example...

If you’ve been reading this blog for any amount of time, you’ve probably heard me reference screenwriter Shane Black once or thrice. One of the things he’s known for is setting so many of his films at Christmas. Lethal Weapon. The Long Kiss Goodnight. Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang. All fun movies, all set at Christmas. What’s interesting to note, though, is that not one of them depends on Christmas for any element of their story. Lethal Weapon is a buddy cop film about taking down drug lords. The Long Kiss Goodnight involves an AWOL assassin trying to stop her old employers. Heck, the most Christmassy part of Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang is Michelle Monaghan walking around for a good chunk of the film in her Naughty Santa costume.

Christopher Moore’s wonderful book The Stupidest Angel is also set at Christmas. It’s got a zombie uprising during the most wonderful time of the year.

There’ve also been one or two Christmas horror movies, and a few Valentine’s Day ones as well. Again, reversing the expectations.

And how many alien invasions has the Doctor stopped on December 25th at this point? Five? Six?

Y’see, Timmy, what works for these films is the contrast between our expectations for this time of year and what the story delivers. Events become a little more extreme when played out against a backdrop that evokes opposing feelings. And if it’s a backdrop you don’t have to spend time describing or explaining... well, that just gives you time to get on with your story.

Next time we’ll be closing in on New Year’s, so I may chat about resolutions. Or looking forward to next year. Maybe both.

Until then, a very Happy Christmas season to you all. Don’t go too crazy with the eggnog-- it is loaded with calories.

And go write.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Writing is Rewriting. And Then Stopping.

You’ve probably heard at least half of this week’s title before. If you’ll indulge me for a bit, I’ll explain the other half.

Since I’ve been waist-deep in the drafting process, I figured I could toss out a rough guide of what that usually means to me. I've given lots of suggestions about this sort of thing before, but I thought it might be cool to show a step by step, solid example of how I take a project from a pile of rough ideas to something I'll show friends, to something I consider worth showing to... well, people who might give me money for it.

Before going into this, I also want to remind everyone of the golden rule.

What works for me might not work for you, and it almost definitely won't work for that guy.

As I’ve mentioned once or thrice before, we all have our own way of writing. Doing these drafts in this way helps me, but you might need to do something a little different.

That being said...

The 1st Draft-- This is just the "get it done" stage, as far as I’m concerned. I don't worry 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. 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. This serves as a very, very rough outline, just enough so I can start writing on page one and go.

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’ll be able to go into the exact details of Wakko’s nervous breakdown later, so I'd rather keep moving forward and leave those snarls for Future Peter to deal with. Again, for me, the most important thing is to get the overall framework 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. For this stage, it really is quantity over quality. I mentioned this visual once before. Think of the first draft like prospecting for gold. If you wanted to find a pound of gold, how much soil would you dig up? Seventeen ounces? Five pounds? Five hundred pounds? Where are your best odds for finding that pound of gold?

I don’t show this draft to anyone. My lovely lady may get an out-loud reading or a little peek if I think I’ve done something exceptionally clever. There have been one or two times she’s called me out on something that sounded good in my head but was kind of flat and awkward in someone else’s. I also don’t do much past a night off to celebrate the end of this draft before diving into...

The 2nd Draft-- Now it's time to smooth it out. All those problems I left for Future Peter to deal with need to be dealt with. Gaps get filled in. All those awkward knots get worked out. Because I can see a lot of these elements in relation to the whole story now , I'll usually find the answers to these problems are more apparent.

The goal with this draft 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 as much as a week. I’ll watch movies, work out a little extra (I need it after three or four months at my desk), build little toy soldiers, or maybe even scribble up a few ranty blog posts in advance. Sometimes I’ll play with a short story idea. The goal is to push the manuscript as far out of my mind as possible. Don't look at it, try not to think too much about it. And then...

The 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 here before--

2nd draft = 1st draft - 10%

one adverb per page, four adjectives

One thing I really go after here is the padding phrases I have a bad habit of dropping in everywhere (sort of, somewhat, kind of, more or less) that don't really do anything. One of my regular readers dubbed this Somewhat Syndrome, and I like to tell myself I’ve gotten better about it now that I’m aware of the problem. Sometimes I also like to tell myself that Famke Janssen and I would have a really deep, emotional connection if we ever met...

Anyway, at this point I've gone through the whole manuscript at least twice, so a few larger cuts should be visible. The long description of Wakko ceremonially sharpening his katana. Dot's flashback to the summer she lost her virginity during a midnight swim with a handsome stranger. That impassioned speech Wakko gives against taxing the rich. That's some beautiful writing there, but is it actually doing anything?

This tightening process is also when I can usually spot flaws in the overall structure. In larger stories, it's not uncommon to end up with "floating" events that are important, but aren't tied to a solid point in the script. This one may be here right now, but with all of the story in front of me I might realize it would work better there.

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 (10%) and I'm too close to see it.

For the record, this is where Ex-Patriots is right now.

The 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 logic chains still complete? Transitions still good? Parallels parallel? Arcs smooth? Did Dot just pull a skeleton key out of her pocket that she shouldn’t have yet? Did Yakko just turn into a woman for a few minutes in the middle of the chapter?

This draft doesn’t take long. Just a day or two. It’s just one slow, careful read of the story.

Once I’ve got the fourth draft all shiny, this is the one I show to 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.

This goes off into the world and it may be a month before I look at it again. The trick here is to resist messing with it while those people are looking at it. Again, it’s a great time to flex different mental muscles. Maybe I’ll do a lot of research on an upcoming project. Maybe I’ll build a model tank. Or maybe I’ll just get caught up on laundry.

The 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 manuscript page by page. This is one of those times that having a second monitor’s very helpful, because I can have three or four versions open and visible at once.

So, 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 get five people to make comments for me, and that's 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 nobody likes 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. I need to make sure everything still works now that I’ve made those tweaks and changes from my reader's notes,. So, yet another line by line reading, adjusting as I go.

And honestly, at this point... this is usually when I’m done. There’s 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. If it's not ready to show to a publisher by now, it probably means I screwed up something big right at the start. Perhaps when I first thought I could adapt To Kill a Mockingbird into a hardcore tween vampire romance starring the Animaniacs.

Y’see, Timmy, there's a real 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 Frankenstein Monster. And not the nice, clean Boris Karloff version. I’m talking about the seriously messy Roger Corman one.

Maybe even, dare I say it, Mr. Stitch.

Next time it’s going to be Christmas. Well, the Eve of Christmas Eve. So I might prattle on with some ideas about how you can have holiday fun.

Until then, go write

Thursday, December 9, 2010

A Brief Interlude

I’d hoped to have time for a little rant on drafts this week, but it just hasn’t worked out that way. I blame The Green Hornet. If it hadn’t been so good, I wouldn’t’ve had to do more work on the article.


So, I’ve got nothing for you but this little gem my lady love discovered. Full credit goes to creator David Kazzie who runs a nice blog called The Corner. I’m sure everyone reading this has been in this conversation before, either in person or somewhere here online.

The real question is, which side of the conversation were you...?

Next week, the draft.

Until then, go write.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Going Over The Wall

This week’s title is one of those references that only works if you watch a lot of prison movies. Or maybe if you remember living with the Berlin Wall. Or if you’re a 1200 year old Mongolian.

Okay, I guess it works for a lot of people.

You know what gets skimmed over a lot? The paragraph. No, I’m not making a writer joke. Think about it. In school you learned about simple sentences, complex sentences, sentence components, sentence structure, and more. As someone who came pretty close to being a high school English teacher, it wouldn’t surprise me if you ran the numbers and found out half of all English and grammar instruction revolves around sentences.

Now, granted, the sentence is one of the basic building blocks of all writing. Words may be your electrons and protons, but until they’re in a sentence they’re not really doing anything (unless you have some sort of literary particle accelerator, but that would be dangerous and reckless to use). They’re vague abstractions on their own. Once you start linking them together, that’s when the fun begins. That’s when you get to express thoughts and ideas and memories and dreams. So learning about sentences and how to construct them is an invaluable skill. Without it we’d all be muttering “fire bad” or “Hulk smash” and gesturing a lot.

The next step up--in both construction and in skill--is the paragraph. It’s a group of sentences that have related ideas behind them and they come together to express bigger thoughts and more complex ideas on a given topic. As such, it’s kind of sad that the paragraph only gets a small amount of attention from most instructors. Heck, I’ve got a baker’s dozen of writing books that I’ve collected over the years and you know how many of them have “paragraph” listed in their index? Two.

Let’s go over a couple of the basics of paragraphs. Most of you probably remember these from grade school, but it’s probably not a bad refresher for all of us. Including me.

First off, as I mentioned above, a paragraph revolves around an idea. It’s almost always a single topic. Keep in mind “a topic” can encompass a lot of things. For fiction purposes, think of it as a single step or beat. Solving a mystery is a topic. So is realizing you’re in love. Kickboxing with the enemy, downloading MP3s, reading a book, getting eaten by one of the Elder Gods-- these are all topics. Any one of these simple ideas can get fleshed out into a paragraph with more description and additional details (and sometimes into more than one paragraph)

This brings us to the topic sentence (yeah, your skin’s starting to crawl a bit, isn’t it? That fifth grade English class is coming back to you now). In simple terms, the topic sentence sums up the rest of the paragraph. It sets the stage, so to speak. The topic sentence gives me, the reader, an idea what the paragraph is about. For example, look back to the first sentence of this paragraph. It lets you know that this block of text is going to be about topic sentences. Make sense?

More often then not, the topic sentence is the first sentence of a paragraph. It doesn’t have to be, mind you. In more casual, conversational prose it can end up as the second or third sentence. If you’re presenting facts, it might even come at the end, like a lawyer summing up his or her case for a jury ( “...and that’s why Superman could beat Mighty Mouse in a fight.”).

You should also have some kind of a closer. It doesn’t need to be “Now I am done,” but it should be apparent that this particular bundle of information is now complete. As I mentioned above, sometimes your closer can be your topic sentence. The important thing is that a paragraph just doesn’t drift off at the end. One simple way you can prevent that is this.

Of course, the real question here is... so what? Are paragraphs really that important? If they were, more than two out of thirteen books would talk about them, right? They can’t be that big a deal.

Stop. Did you catch that two paragraphs back? Awkward as hell, wasn’t it? It stumbles because it ends with a sentence that should be leading directly into another one. Not only that, but said sentence is actually expressing a separate idea. The main paragraph is about the need for a closer, but the last sentence is about a method of preventing awkward endings. It should really be the first sentence of the next paragraph, with further explanation coming after it.

There is no simple method of prevention, by the way. Well, there’s “don’t do it,” but that seems like kind of a cop-out answer.


If you don’t have paragraphs, what you have is a wall. We’ve all seen them. In books, sometimes in scripts, and probably a fare share of time here online. Heck, I dealt with it here on the ranty blog just a few weeks ago. It’s when the page is simply filled with words. No breaks. No pauses to breathe. Every single line hits the left hand margin for as far as you can see. It’s intimidating. It makes us cringe back almost instinctively. The reader’s overwhelmed by this monster block of text that incorporates four or five or more topics.

Y’see, Timmy, paragraphs make a story easier to read. In the same way that punctuation slows and regulates the flow of words, making sure the reader gets the words at the pace the writer intended, paragraphs break the story up into bite-sized bits. You don’t want to eat all the food in a meal at once (which is why you have sentences) and you also don’t want to eat all your meals for the day at once (which is why you have paragraphs). The wall of text is one of those horrific force-feeding fetishes, where the author is just cramming more and more and MORE and MORE down the reader’s throat.

When used correctly, paragraphs help tease the reader on. One sentence leads into the next. Each paragraph leads into the next. Chapters complement each other (but never, ever compliment each other). This is what gets readers hooked on your writing, and once or thrice here I’ve referred to it with the term flow. Well-constructed paragraphs are a huge element of flow.

Paragraphs can also help with dialogue. In this case your topic is usually what Yakko is saying, and perhaps what he’s doing while he’s talking. When you cram multiple speakers (or thinkers, or action-ers) into a single paragraph, you become more dependent on descriptors, and that can slow things down. While there’s no hard rule that says every speaker needs a new paragraph of their own, in my experience it usually makes for a cleaner, easier read.

And that’s what we’re all going for. A clean, easy read that will keep our audience turning pages when they should be cooking dinner, folding laundry, or doing their homework. So the next time you sit down to fill a page, maybe you’ll think of some of this. And maybe you won’t actually fill the page.

I might need to miss next week while I finish up this draft. Once I’m back, though, I thought it’d be a great time to talk about drafts.

Until then, go write.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Naming Your Heroes

I thank all of you who dragged yourselves either out of a triptophan-induced coma to read this right after I posted it or for taking the time to check in while you’re in line for a Black Friday sale.

I’ve talked once before about names for characters and ways to come up with them and how much meaning needs (or doesn’t need) to be given to them. I thought it would be a good time to revisit that train of thought, especially since I’ve had two books come out since then. One of which has become unexpectedly popular.

If you've listened to or read any of the different interviews I’ve done over the past year, you know a lot of the characters in Ex-Heroes first came to be back during my grade school years. At the time, my big goal in life was to make comic books, even though I didn’t know the art and the story were done by two different people. I made up tons and tons of characters when I was supposed to be diagramming sentences, and I’d sketch them out in one of the art notebooks my mom would get me. In all fairness, about 70% of them were either crap or completely derivative of existing Marvel or DC characters.

A few had solid ideas behind them, though. So here's how some of their names developed (or just fell) on the page. And because I'm not above self-depricating humor, here are some of the sketches of the characters that eventually, well, grew up into the ones in the book.

By the way, a little warning right up front-- all the images you’re about to see are close to twenty-five years old. They were so faint I had to use my camera because the scanner couldn’t pick up the images. The artwork is not spectacular. Neither is the sense of proportions. The sense of light and shadow is non-existent. God forgive me, much of it is influenced by mid-late ‘80s fashion.

All that being said, unnecessary cruelty will not be tolerated and shall be stomped out post-haste.

St. George got his name a bit circularly. I knew early on I was going to be using a lot of the old characters I’d made up in middle school and junior high, and one of these was the Dragon (originally created as a fresh teenage recruit for Marvel’s New Mutants). I also knew I wanted the post-apocalyptic heroes and civilians to be on a more casual, even level with each other. I figured it wouldn’t be uncommon for many of the heroes to have given up their secret identities. The catch here was that I still felt the Mighty Dragon, as my ‘alpha’ hero, would be a person of great respect in the community.

As it happens, I’ve loved the story of St. George and the Dragon since I was a kid, and this solved a number of issues in one fell swoop. It also didn’t take long to go from there to making his real name George Bailey, just like the lovable martyr Jimmy Stewart played in It’s A Wonderful Life. This helped give St. George a bit more of a “Superman” feel to him (the phenomenally powerful hero with the goofy, clumsy secret identity) and humanized him as a guy trying to deal with the very-recognizable name his parents hung on him. It also immediately tied him to a figure with a solid moral code and strong ethics.

Here’s a fun fact. Stealth was originally a man. He was one of my oldest characters, originally called Night Stalker, first made up in Mr. Berenson’s fifth grade class at York Middle School. That’s kind of an overused name, though, so I played around and came up with Stealth, which is kind of self-explanatory.  At the same time, I was noticing the rarity of female characters in my early oeuvre, and I liked the idea of a woman as the uber badass of the Mount.

I didn’t want to give Stealth’s real name for a few reasons. Her backstory was actually the second one I wrote for the novel, and as I polished it over four or five more drafts it became apparent she was the most obsessed and driven of all of them. She holds herself to such an impossibly high standard and feels like she has to prove something. Considering how she decided to become a hero, it made no sense for her to give up her secret identity, despite the conditions they were all living under. This also firmed up her character even more, because what kind of woman refuses to remove her mask when there’s such a small number of people left in the world?

Zzzap is, by far, the most powerful being in the story, and it’s only his own personal limitations which hold him back. He gets queasy and his mental reactions are a lot slower than what he’s physically capable of doing. I wanted a very plain, average name. Dare I say it, a Joe Six-Pack name.
I also admit I wanted to evoke the sense of a classic comic book secret identity with at least one of my characters. So many of those heroes have alliterative names. Peter Parker. Wally West. Reed Richards. Susan Storm. Bruce Banner. Matt Murdock. Stephen Strange. Heck, people have written essays on Superman’s LL fixation with his supporting cast. So Zzzap became Barry Burke.

For the record, the actual name Zzzap, with three Z’s, was inspired by an old Hulk villain called Zzzax. I read somewhere that writer Steve Englehart wanted someone who’d always come last in any alphabetical listing. So I followed in his footsteps with Zzzap.

Actually, one more fun fact. I was digging through the old sketchbooks for pictures to go with this post and came across this one here with the very tiny picture of “Zap” amidst a swarm of heroes. I seem to remember this as a very early experiment in starting a picture with stick-figures (which I think I learned from Draw Comics The Marvel Way or some such book). If the date on the cover of the sketchbook is to be believed, it means this is probably one of the oldest pictures of any of these heroes, from 1982. So Zzzap predates Return of the Jedi.

When I first came up with the idea for Gorgon, I freely admit it was a prepubescent idea for a character who could touch Rogue from the X-Men without getting zapped. I made him an energy-vampire off the rationale that similar powers would cancel each other out, and once it was optic-based (he hid his eyes behind sunglasses) Gorgon seemed like a pretty straightforward name to use. His vague backstory was created just for the novel, as was the idea of his custom, camera-iris goggles.

For the record, this was long before most people pictured Rogue as Anna Paquin, and even longer before Anna Paquin was getting in on with vampires on a regular basis. That was all just a bit of serendipity.
His real name of Nikolai Bartamian came from a desire to show off a bit of LA’s melting pot. There’s just a ton of different populations here. Mexican. Korean. Armenian. Chinese. Japanese. I didn’t want it to feel like a pile of male white Anglo-Saxon heroes. And Bartamian is the last name of a friend of mine.

In my original collection of sketches and index cards, Cerberus wasn’t so much a suit of armor as a technological weapons array you wore with regular clothes (kind of like Whiplash in Iron Man 2). It even had a cape and flared gloves. The name came from its ability to throw three types of energy beams. And he was a villain (yep, another he-becomes-she), or at least such a dark, zero-tolerance anti-hero/ mercenary-for-hire that he served as a villain in all respects.

For Ex-Heroes, since Cerberus is this huge, powerful, armored machine, the person inside had to be contrasted as much as possible to stand out. Danielle is a great name which even looks feminine on the page. I also liked the idea of a woman who wants to be feminine, for the guys to look at her, but really has no idea how to make that happen. And it doesn’t help that she’s usually wearing this monstrous battlesuit and has a code-name which makes people mistake her for a man. Morris, in all honesty, I just picked out of the air because it sounded good with Danielle.

Cairax Murrain was always a monster, always a villain. Originally he was a cape-and-robed sorcerer (named John Carracks) who turned into the demon through a big long ritual (and a sticky, Alien-esque cocoon). The name Cairax was just a bunch of hard syllables, meant to sound a bit alien. Murrain is an archaic word for plague (anyone who’s sat through a full Seder probably knew that already). Together it’s a pretty good name for a demon. The two part name also hints at a certain level of self-awareness and intelligence, because I wanted it clear that the demon itself wasn’t just some slavering beast. Being a little older, I liked the idea of evil slaved to good through this magical “partnership” and then effectively becoming a villain again because of the ex-virus.

His real name of Maxwell Hale came from two places, so to speak. Max ties back to Cariax, sound-wise, and let me hint the demon isn’t entirely responsible for Max coming across as a bit ruthless and self-centered, no matter how noble his motives were. On the flipside, Hale is a very simple name. It may not be common but it sounds common, which helped ground the guy who was supposed to be this amazing sorcerer and make him a bit more relatable.

And that, I think, covers most of the bases for now. I could go into Regenerator, Midknight, Blockbuster, and dear little Banzai, but this is kind of long already and most of the points I wanted to make have been covered.

Next time, I’ll probably go on for a dozen or two paragraphs about something else.

Until then, have a Happy Thanksgiving. And try to do some writing after the pecan pie.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Do You Feel Real? And If So, I’d Like to Know...

More pop culture references for the old folks.

Yeah, I’m running late. Very sorry. I hit the home stretch on the first draft of Ex-Patriots and I had to give my attention to that.

Check it out, though. The blog counter passed 10,000 hits. And it did it on a week I didn’t post anything.

Anyway, I haven’t prattled on about characters in a while, so I figure I’m due...

I may have mentioned once or twice before that characters are key to a successful story. Non-stop action with flat stereotypes can be diverting in a film for a little while, but in a book (and in a good movie) characters are your bedrock. If the reader doesn’t have someone they like, someone they can relate to, a story can be dead in the water by page five.

Now, there are three common ways people try to make their characters come to life and become real on the page. I say “try” because all three are based off a simple misunderstanding of why certain aspects of characters work. Let’s go over what they are, the problems with each one, and how you can work around it.

The first method is to describe these characters in amazing detail. The writer introduces us to Phoebe and tells us her hair color, eye color, height, and weight. Then come descriptions of her hairstyle, body type, the shape of her face, and possible tattoos (visible or not). There’s a list of her measurements and shoe size. In the next sentence we get the name of her lipstick, the name of her perfume, the designer for her jewelry, the designer for her shoes, and the style of her manicure. Phoebe gets described to us in such exacting detail there’s no way we can picture her any way except how the writer envisioned her.

The second way is for the writer to give pages of background on the character. We’ll get lengthy flashbacks to Phoebe’s first day of school, her first kiss, her first sophomore English class at Prestigious University. Sometimes she’ll start talking to friends, family, or complete strangers and tell them about the last time she baked cookies with her mom, the awkwardness of losing her virginity in the back of a pick-up truck, or the day she realized she wanted to be an Oscar-winning screenwriter. Sometimes these historical revelations won’t even be a flashback or dialogue, they’ll just be straight prose from the writer.

The barista gave Phoebe her double-whipped half-mocha latte with whipped cream, just the way she liked it, just the way she had it every day. He was a handsome man, and part of her wanted to ask him out. He wore plaid flannel shirts a lot, though. It was a silly thing, she knew, but plaid flannel always made her mind go back to her grandfather’s heart attack. He’d always worn plaid, too, and he’d been wearing it the day she and mom were visiting and he grabbed at his chest and made that awful noise. Young Phoebe had been so determined not to look at his pain-stricken face she’d just stared at the plaid shirt. So for now the barista would just have to stay behind the counter.

The third way, thankfully, is the least common, but it happens enough I feel the need to mention it. Real people have irrational quirks, sometimes do nonsensical things, and often go against their own best interests. Sometimes we even up and die in awful, unexpected ways (statistics say most people do at least once in their life). It’s the way we’re all wired. We’ve all seen people do things like this. We’ve all done things like this.

The logic here is if the writer has the characters act illogically, they’re acting more real. If Phoebe is a bundle of odd behaviors, then she has to be believable. It’s almost a challenge to the reader. Since real people do this, how can anyone say Phoebe isn’t real if she’s doing it? Heck, if Phoebe randomly gets hit by a car in the last few pages, that’s so much like life it almost counts as art, doesn’t it...?

Now, here’s why these three methods usually don’t work. I won’t say they never work, but if you’re the gambling type you should consider the odds here.

The problem with using tons of details to describe your character is it breaks the flow of your story. Events come to a screeching halt while the writer has this infodump. If you look back up there, I bet you started skimming just while reading that list of potential descriptions, didn’t you? If a list of general examples can’t hold your attention, what’s going to happen when it’s a list of specifics two or three times long?

The other catch to this is that a lot of the time readers form their own mental images of what a character looks like. For example, if you look over the past few paragraphs you’ll see I haven’t actually described Phoebe at all, but you’ve probably got some mental image of her when I use the name, don’t you? If you know what this character looks like with no description, then two pages of description is just pointless excess.

In a similar vein, a writer can add in a hundred pages of biographical facts and anecdotes and it’s still not going to make a character seem real. More likely, the story’s going to suffer from the same expositional infodump I mentioned above, and it’s going to come to a crashing halt again. The problem is relevance. While there’s no question these past events shaped Phoebe’s life and the person she is today, the reader’s going to wonder what do they have to do with this story. No matter how good a particular element is, if it doesn’t relate to the story the writer’s telling it’s just bulk filler.

The other problem here is no matter how much raw data you pour out on the page, there’s always more which isn’t out there. There are shaping events we forgot or didn’t want to mention. There are people we probably never realized how influential they were to our lives.

Consider Angelina Jolie or Barack Obama. Here are two people who’ve had their entire lives put under a microscope and studied by the whole world. And the whole world’s continuing to study them today. Thing is, though, there’s still tons of stuff we don’t know about both of them. Common sense tells you that. I’m not talking about that birth certificate nonsense or any of that. I mean simple things. No matter how much you know about someone--about anyone--there’s always more you don’t know.

(Yes, I needed a picture of something to break up the wall of text, so we've got Tomb Raider. There it is.)

The problem with the third method, randomness, is that fiction is held to a higher standard than real life. Nonsensical, illogical, unbelievable things happen in real life all the time, but life isn’t scripted. When I pick up a book, I know John or Jane Doe is the writer behind it. There is no randomness, because every word on the page was deliberately chosen. And that means any apparent randomness has to be serving the purposes of the story. Because if it’s not, well... why is it there?

So, with all that being said, is there any way to make these three methods work?

If not, this hasn’t been terribly informative, has it? Hardly worth the two-week wait. I should probably come up with something...

Okay, the big trick to all of these, as I mentioned above, is relevance. Like adjectives or adverbs, if character elements aren’t serving a purpose they shouldn’t be there. Strip away all the noise and clutter and just give the reader what they need.

For example...

Let me tell you an ugly secret. Phoebe lives in a fleabag apartment infested with rats and roaches, always buys her bread from the day-old rack, and eats peanut butter sandwiches for lunch every day of the week. She always has immaculate hair and designer clothes, though, especially on the weekends. I’ve just told you something about her, haven’t I? More than just the words on the page, too. You’ve got a sense of who Phoebe is and where her priorities are. Maybe even a mental image of her. All in just a hair over three lines.

See, I don’t need a lot of details, just the right details. Did I need to tell you about Phoebe’s anklet or her lipstick or how tall she is for that little character sketch to work? I just need to pick the right details to create the image and imply the person I wanted you to see.

Here’s another example for you. When I was just a ten year old kid I used to walk a mile-long paper route in the snow seven days a week, usually four or five months out of the year. No, seriously, I did. I grew up in Maine-- of course it snowed a good chunk of the time.

What does this have to do with what I’m getting at?


However, once a week I would also walk almost three miles down into York Beach to Garfield’s Newsstand. Wednesday was the day new comics came in, so from about age eight on I would trudge down there-- rain, sleet or snow-- and work through the wire racks looking for new issues of Spider-Man, ROM, Star Wars, Hulk, and more. If it was really cold and I needed more time to warm up, I’d go through the tiny section of genre paperbacks in the back of the store. That’s how I first came to know John Carter of Mars and the old Han Solo novels. And it wasn’t too long before I was copying all of these tales on one level or another.

Y’see, Timmy, the backstory of me delivering newspapers is crap. I’m also not going to waste time retelling the story of my dog Flip and my dislike of ketchup. None of them have anything to do with anything here.

The second story, though, shows some of those first seeds of me becoming a writer. It’s relevant to me as the person behind the ranty blog, so it’s especially worth mentioning in this little rant. If you’re going to add in stories about a character’s past, they should somehow relate to what’s going on in the “now” of your story. Or your blog post.

The randomness issue is the easiest one to deal with. It’s okay for seemingly random things to happen in a story--key word seemingly. At the end of the day, the writer is in charge and the events in this story are happening for a reason which benefits this story. I can tell you, from a narrative point of view, why Duke Perkins dies at the beginning of Under the Dome, why the unnamed comedian’s wife dies in The Killing Joke, and why Ben Kenobi dies in Star Wars. All of these are seemingly random events... but they’re not random, are they? Each one drives the plot and character development in a certain way and in a specific direction. That’s the kind of “randomness” which should be in a story-- the kind that serves the writer’s purpose.

So make your characters. But really make them real.

Next Thursday is Thanksgiving. Wow, this year has flown by. I think I may put a name to something I’m thankful for.

Until then, go write.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Why You Didn't Win

This week’s rant is a bit screenwriter-centric, but it really applies to any sort of submission anywhere. The following words are going to be a bit harsh (even for me), so if you’ve got thin skin... well, next week I was going to talk about characters a bit. If you’re quick to offend, maybe you should just go check out John August’s blog for now and come back here next week.

So, last night I was at the Nicholl Fellowship dinner to see the five new folks get awarded their fellowships. I couldn’t help but notice a lot of you weren’t there. In fact, lets be honest... most of you reading this weren’t there. I’d even be willing to bet a few bucks none of you were there.

Granted, I’m betting not all of you entered the Nicholl this year, but I’m pretty sure a couple of you did. And you weren’t there last night, were you?

A shame really. The steak was fantastic. I mean, seriously, it was amazing. Three of the best meals I’ve ever had have been at Nicholl dinners.

But I digress...

First off, let’s get one thing straight. Nobody deserves to win a contest. Just because all your friends won doesn’t mean you get to as well. It’s never your turn, it’s never about time, and luck has very, very little to do with it. We’re not talking about statistics. A screenplay contest (or any writing submission) is not a lottery.

With that being said, the ugly truth is, most of you reading this don’t deserve to win a contest anyway. Especially not one as prestigious as the Nicholl. That’s all there is to it. You can argue all you like but that’s the way it is.

Let me explain.

For the sake of this discussion, let’s say I’ve decided to hold a contest for horror screenplays. One grand prize, with four lesser prizes. Everyone who subscribes to the ranty blog enters, and let’s say some folks past that, too. By fortunate coincidence, I end up with 100 entries.

Let’s look at those 100 scripts (or short stories, or novels, or whatever it is sitting in a big pile in front of me).

Well, first off, there’s the 50% rule. Out of these 100 screenplays, odds are half of them are going to go right out the window. Figure some people submitted comedies or dramas that features zombies, but they figured it wouldn’t hurt to try. Some of them probably didn’t even have a horror element--they were just straight romcoms or fantasy or sci-fi. I’ll probably recognize their genius and give them an award anyway, though, won’t I?

Plus a few of them will be short stories, not screenplays, and probably a few that are in stage play format, too. One or two will be novels that were very poorly converted into a screenplay template (I mean, it’s all essentially the same thing, right?).

And some will just be God-awful. No other way to say it. Twenty blatant typos on page one. Characters so flat they could slide under a door. Dialogue that makes it sound like English is everyone’s second (or third) language. A plot that sounds a lot like a five year old explaining where dinosaurs came from.

So right there, 50% gone from my horror screenplay contest with almost no effort on my part. Maybe as few as 40. Perhaps as many as 60. In my experience, though, 50% is a great rule of thumb.

The next level of cuts will be those scripts that just don’t measure up. They’ve got an interesting premise, maybe a very clever take on an old idea, but they just didn’t do enough with it. Maybe the writer didn’t work on the screenplay enough because they took the lottery mentality and tried to enter four or five scripts that all could’ve used another two or three drafts. Or maybe it was just one script and it really just needed one more polish.

True story. A few years back I entered a contest that kept their own message boards up so people could talk. One guy proudly stated on these boards that he’d entered over a dozen screenplays. He also directed people to his website, where he had loglines for the three dozen or so scripts he’d written in the past two or three years. When none of his scripts placed, it was all the proof he needed that this contest was obviously a scam.

(I came in third. Got a free copy of Final Draft and a nice certificate.)

If this is the first draft of your script, it’s not going to win a contest. A lot of you may argue that there's always a chance, I shouldn't be negative, you may be a truly gifted amateur, blah blah blah, yadda yadda yadda. This is true. It’s also true, by every known law of physics, that random atoms in the air could come together in just the right way as to form an ounce of pure gold that drops right into your lap. True, and statistically possible, but the odds of it happening are so insanely, ridiculously low that you might as well say it’s impossible.

Please note, this doesn’t mean the script is bad or the writing is inherently flawed. It just means it isn’t polished enough. Despite what you may believe, there are actually tons of diamonds in the world. Literally, tons of them. They’re not all gem-quality, though, and not all of the ones that are get cut and polished correctly. That’s why engagement rings cost half a year’s pay.

So, that kills almost 2/3 of the scripts that are left. They're good, but they aren't great. Now we’re down to seventeen entries (rounding up, because I’m feeling generous).

Next is the rough one. It’s the human factor, and it pervades every single level of the judging process to a small degree. Readers are human beings doing a job. They have good days and bad days. They can get distracted or they can focus on the wrong thing. Think of your day job-- are you 100% focused on it every minute you’re there? Or does your mind wander to your holiday shopping, your personal life, wondering about the cute temp’s personal life, wondering if your boss is that clueless or that brilliant...?

Well, readers do the same things. And, alas, they do it while reading your script.

There’s plusses and minuses to this. On the downside, your sci-fi romance screenplay might land on John’s desktop. John hates sci-fi and he just found out Phoebe’s dumping him for someone else. So today, well... today it might be a little tough for him to be impartial. You’re probably going to lose a point or three from him, and those points are crucial.

Or it might land on Wakko’s desk. Wakko loves sci-fi. Lives and breathes it. He’s got an Enterprise telephone and a TARDIS cell phone charm. Plus, he had his third date with Phoebe last night and... well, the third date went very, very well. So he’s thrilled to get your script and he’s almost definitely going to pass it on to the next level, even if maybe it doesn’t really deserve to make the cut..

Then again, it could go to Dot. She’s okay with some sci-fi, doesn’t mind it, but your script will get a fair shake with her. But little indy character dramas with no plot? Man, she loathes those things...

Maybe you’ll luck out. Maybe you won’t. Alas, statistically, the human factor is more likely to hurt than help. Y’see, Timmy, a good script that gets shot down stays shot down. A so-so script that doesn’t get shot down now most likely will get shot down later and then stay shot down. So if the human factor has a permanent effect, it’ll be a bad one.

At the most though, as I said, we’re only going to lose a few scripts to this. Let’s say three.

Now we’re down to fourteen out of the original hundred. See how quick they go away?

Last but not least...not everyone wins. When it comes down to it, contests have only so many slots for winners, and they can't hand out prizes to every script that may deserve them. I’m giving away five prizes. That’s it. You can write a spectacular script and still come in second. Or even eighth.

That's not just math, it’s life.

Keep in mind, while not winning is heartbreaking, it doesn't have to be the end. Many contests offer feedback and judges’ comments on entries, so losing can still get you valuable information about how your script was perceived. You can use these responses to hone and polish your script even further, so the next time it goes out it will be stronger than ever.

It’s also worth noting that several producers, agents, and managers who keep track of contests look at the semi-finalists and finalists with just as much interest as the actual winners. James V. Simpson was a finalist for the 2006 Nicholl Fellowship. He didn't get the fellowship, but his screenplay, Armored, still ended up selling for almost half a million dollars and got released earlier this year with a star-studded cast.

You will not win every contest, but--as special-snowflake as it sounds-- you can try to make every one a positive experience.

Next time around, I want to talk about character. Because good characters rule.

Until then go write. And don’t get discouraged just because you didn’t win this time.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

The Fear-O-Meter

Hello, kiddies! Thanks for tuning in to my latest blog post-mortem!! Hehehehehheheeeee!!

Pop culture again. Ahhh, those were the days...

So, last year at this time I talked about a couple of the subgenres horror can be broken down into. It’s important to know which group your tale of terror sits best with so you know how to approach the different elements and the way they mesh together. Knowing this also helps to sell it and promote it.

By the same token, when you sit down to write something “scary,” it can help to know just what you’re hoping to accomplish. People get their heads cut off in the Saw movies, in Attack of the Clones, in The Man in the Iron Mask, and in A Mighty Heart, but these decapitations are all received in very different ways because of how their particular stories are being told. In the same way, Freddy Kruger has been a slasher, a monster, and a plain old villain, even though the character has barely changed at all. How, exactly, do you intend to scare your readers with this moment as opposed to that one? Or are they supposed to evoke the same kind of fear?

You can nitpick back and forth, but I think fear, as a sensation, generally breaks down into three basic categories. There’s a couple different names people use for them, but for our purposes today, let’s call them the shocker, the gross out, and dread. These three form the food pyramid of fear, if you will, which means using and combining them in the right ways can make a variety of tasty seasonal treats.

...starting to sound like a cooking blog...


The Shocker- This is when something unexpected happens and makes the audience jump. It’s the fear of what’s happening right at this moment. If you’ve ever watched someone read and seen their eyes bug, they probably just hit a shocker. Ever been in a theater when most everyone screams? Same thing. When someone walks around the camp cabin and Jason buries his machete in their skull, that’ll make you jump even watching a movie where you know people are going to get machetes in the skull. When Michael suddenly shoots Ana Lusia on LOST, that’s a shocker, too. Individual shocks can be stretched out a bit--especially on film-- with lots of shouting and chaos and a few smaller shocks to keep it going, but really a shock is a short-lived thing.

The shocker is powerful, but it’s important for writers to remember it can’t stand on its own for long. As I’ve mentioned before, a good way to think of shocks is like exclamation points. You can use them! You can use a lot of them!!! But after a while, there needs to be something that actually requires emphasis! If not the shocks will start to lose power and your readers or audience will start to get bored!! Shocks eventually need something solid and lasting to support them.

The Gross-Out - As named by the King himself. It’s when things are just disgusting. This is when the writer’s trying to tap into the reader’s sense of revulsion and maybe even induce some nausea. It’s when we spend two or three pages on someone getting their limbs sawed off or just eating a peanut butter and maggot sandwich, where the little sour-milk colored larva are eating their own paths through the spread before getting crushed against the roof of the mouth by someone’s tongue. The gross out usually differs from the shocker because of duration. While a shock gets weak the longer the writer tries to prolong it, a gross out can actually gain strength as it goes on and on (and thus, torture porn was born). Go too long or too frequently, though, and audiences will get bored with the gross out just like anything else.

An interesting point is that the audience often (but not always) knows the gross out is coming. We don’t linger on it, but it rarely comes out of nowhere.

It’s also worth noting that a lot of gross-out stuff moves closer to dread when it isn’t described at length. Speaking of Stephen King, we all remember the lovely “hobbling” scene in Misery, yes? What’s happening almost takes second place to Annie calmly explaining what she’s doing and why she’s doing it... even in the middle of the procedure.

Dread - This is when something doesn’t happen, but we know it could. It’s fear of potential events, if that makes sense. You could also call this suspense or perhaps terror (if you wanted to nitpick). We’re waiting and waiting because we know something’s going to reach out from under the bed or crawl out of the closet and the fact that it hasn’t yet is giving us the chills. Pennywise the Clown gives us anxiety because we know he isn’t just a clown and it’s very wrong for him to be down in those sewer drains. Hannibal Lecter is creepy just sitting in his cell talking about the things he’s done in the past. And the zombie Julie Walker is kind of hot, but you also know she's on that razor's edge of probably eating everyone in the room (and not in the fun way). Dread works well in larger tales because there’s space for eerie backstories, but a good writer can also make it function in tighter spaces.

There’s two catches that come with dread. One is that it relies on the writer having a very solid grasp of how the audience is going to react and what they’re going to know. If I tell you there’s a Strigori knocking at the front door, most of you are going to shrug your shoulders and open up. Likewise, I may find ketchup disturbing, but I shouldn’t assume everyone’s skin is going to crawl at the sight of it. Paint the creepy stuff on too thin or to vague and the audience just won’t get it and they'll be bored. Paint it to thick and they’ll be angry you assumed they weren’t going to get it. If the shocker is a hammer, suspense is the scalpel of fear.

Tying back to that, dread also relies on the audience having... well, not to sound crass, but it depends on a certain level of intelligence and involvement. If you try explaining climate change to a chimpanzee, you’ll notice they don’t get too worried about it--assuming they sit there for your whole lecture. It makes me sound old, I know, but part of the challenge with dread these days is the shortening of people’s attention spans. If people keep switching channels, walking away, twitting, or texting, they’re not getting involved in the story. Without that involvement, it’s very hard to build a sense of dread.

Also worth noting that dread needs good characters more than the other two types. We need to be able to identify with what a character’s going through. If we can’t, this is a news report, not a story.

Once you know just what you’re trying to do, it’s easy to see how each one works and how they can work with each other. Campfire stories are often little suspense tales that build to a shock in the same way jokes build to a punchline. A lot of the ‘80s slasher films would start with a touch of suspense, jump to shock, and then dive headfirst into the gross-out. Alfred Hitchcock could drag suspense out for ages, but knew a good shock or two could make a film unforgettable.

(mother, please. I’m trying to work on my blog. No mother, it’s not one of those websites, it’s for good people...)


Next time is mostly for the budding screenwriters. Some of you found out last week that you didn’t get one of the 2010 Nicholl Fellowships, yes? I’m willing to bet that no one reading this did, but I’m also sure some of you didn’t try for one. Let’s talk about why you didn’t get one.

Until then, go hand out candy. Oh, and write between trick or treaters.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Miss Scarlett in the Study with the Lamp

So, as we’re getting into the season of all things eerie and mysterious, I thought I’d babble on about a little problem I’ve seen once or thrice. The nice thing about it is, like many things, it’s pretty easy to avoid once you notice it.

Just like you can have false drama, it’s also possible to have false mysteries. These stories are boring and frustrating more than interesting. I’ve come across them a lot in genre stories and scripts, and once or thrice in political thrillers.

A quick recap...

A mystery is when the main character(or characters) and the audience are aware that an important fact has been hidden from them, and the story usually involves the search for that unknown fact. Who killed Mr. Boddy? What room did they kill him in? What did they use to do the deed? And why does that reanimated mummy want that old Egyptian coin? At it’s simplest, a mystery is a question someone in your story is asking and trying to find the answer to.

In a good mystery the answers always exist. There are people to ask, clues to examine, deductions to make, and so forth. There’s always someone who knows the answer. It might be the murderer, a cult member, the retired beat cop, anyone. But someone has the answers the characters--and by extension, the readers-- are looking for.

Now, here’s where some folks go wrong.

In an attempt to make their main character seem skilled or clever, I’ve seen many fledgling writers solve the mystery in the opening pages of their story. The solution is revealed to the main character right up front and then the rest of the narrative becomes all about keeping this information from the audience. The mystery’s solved, the answer just isn’t being given out until the end.

For example, I read one book recently that was a take on the Grail myth. Two parallel characters-- one during the Crusades, the other in modern times-- are on quests to find the secret of the Holy Grail. However, the first character gets taken aside by her father less than 1/5 into the book and--I kid you not--it essentially goes like this...


“Come, daughter. I must tell you a story.”

He talked long into the night and into the morning. His mouth went dry several times. As the sun broke over the hills, he finished.

“This is amazing,” she finally said. “You’ve known this all along?”

“Yes, and now you must keep this fantastic secret, too, until you pass it on to your child.”


I’m not exaggerating. That’s almost word for word what the author has on the page.

So, the story then covers another 300 pages during which Phoebe (not her real name) risks the lives of her friends and makes seemingly-irrational decisions to protect a secret she’s really just hiding from the readers. In the end, we don’t even get the answer from Phoebe. The author abandons the whole Crusades-era thread with Phoebe cornered by her enemies and just has someone else tell the modern-era character what happened to her. “Ah, the story of Phoebe? A sad tale, really. You see, when she was cornered by her enemies she...”

That was it. One person has the answers for the whole story, dies “off camera,” and someone else just walks in to read the answer out of a book. No, seriously. The modern character finds this historian and he actually reads her the answer out of a book.

This is not a mystery. Sure you can pitch it as the mystery of the grail, but it’s not. It’s just withheld information. A successful mystery has certain key elements which I’ve mentioned before. The reason this sort of story structure fails is that it violates two of these minimum requirements.

The first of these is that a mystery needs to have a resolution. The characters are searching for that hidden piece of information and they must find it for the mystery to work. The problem here is that the answer was found early in the story. So... mystery solved. In the example above, we were searching for the secret of the Grail and found it on page 81. The rest of the story is unnecessary.

The second element is that in a good mystery we like the protagonists and can relate to them. In any good piece of storytelling--whatever the genre--the characters should mirror the audience. It’s important to them that the answer is found, thus it’s important to us that the answer is found. We want to stick with them until they find those solutions and resolve things.

Y’see, Timmy, the main character can’t be the person holding the answers. In order to do that, they have to hide those facts from the reader (like Phoebe did). Now Phoebe isn’t mirroring the audience, she’s keeping them at arm’s length. The moment she starts concealing things, our protagonist has just alienated the reader.

For the record, this also holds for any Mr. X/ femme fatale type characters who make vague statements or drop cryptic hints. If they’re only here for a page or two, great. But these people can’t be following the main character around for two hundred pages or else they become protagonists, too. And, as I just mentioned above, they’ll be protagonists we don’t like.

If you want to put a mystery in your story, that’s great. Mysteries rock and great mysteries get remembered forever. Just make sure it’s a real mystery, with all the necessary elements it needs to work.

Next time, it being the season and all, I’d like to talk with you about horror.

Until then, go write.