Thursday, January 28, 2010

The Ten Percenters

No, this isn't something like the Dirty Dozen, the Rogues Gallery, or the Crazy Eights. I'm not being that subtle for once.

So, I've tossed around an idea once or thrice here called "common knowledge." It's the sort of stuff you can put in your writing without worrying that people won't know what you're talking about. Nazis are bad. Puppies are good. Republicans are conservative. Democrats are progressive. Grass is green. The sky is blue. Getting into Harvard, the Major Leagues, or the Navy SEALS is an accomplishment. These are all safe bets in the world of common knowledge.

The place I see fledgling writers stumble a lot is when they decide since they know something, everyone must know it. They'll even insist people should know it. And then they'll use this "common knowledge" in their writing. Which is why a writer can make a joke about Kit Fisto putting his testicles all over Natalie Portman and then can't figure out why no one laughs hysterically.

For the record, that's a double-whammy nerd joke, but it depends on you knowing who Kit Fisto was in the Star Wars prequels and knowing what he looked like and remembering a joke from the 1985 film Better Off Dead. If you did have all that at your fingertips while you were reading that last paragraph, you probably got a good chuckle. If not, you're still wrinkling your brow and trying to figure out what I'm getting at.

Which is what I wanted to get at.

On The Simpsons they have a special kind of joke they call "the ten percenters." As the name implies, a ten percenter is a gag or a joke they know only ten percent of their audience is going to get. It's a sly reference to politics or Fox News or Planet of the Apes that will slip by a lot of folks and make them wonder why one or two people keep repeating that line later at work.

(By the way, if any of you can explain the reference behind "I'm the first non-Brazilian person to travel in time!!" I'd love to hear it. Seen that one every Halloween for coming on fifteen years, still don't get that joke...)

Now, here's the key point. While they may do three or four of these ten percenters in each episode, The Simpsons does lots and lots of jokes for 99% of their audience. Everybody gets why it's funny when Homer's new boss turns out to be a supervillian planning to wipe out France with his doomsday device, and the irony that this is a job Homer's finally good at. We also understand the joke when Krusty blames his bad behavior on his crippling Percoset addiction, then gets reminded Percoset is one of his show's sponsors. And it's hard not to laugh when Homer cheerfully implicates himself as a suspect when the old lady down the street is murdered. The ten percenters are great, but they can't be the majority of the program. This is when the writers acknowledge that some of the things they find funny might be a bit obscure to some audience members. It also shows they're aware of what the majority of their audience will find funny.

Want a literary example of a ten-percenter? I'm betting a decent number of you here have read Stephen King's Under The Dome by now, yes? How many of you caught the reference to Lee Child's kick-ass military character Jack Reacher? I skimmed right past it, myself, with only a dim thought of Who is this guy he's talking about? flitting through my mind. It wasn't a huge, key element of the chapter, though, so it didn't really disrupt my reading. My girlfriend had to point it out while she was reading it.

Y'see, Timmy, the biggest mistake I can make as a writer is to assume that because I know this, everyone does. Writers are creative folks who read voraciously. We watch the news, we do research. We even watch for details in our own lives. This is especially dangerous for writers coming out of specialized fields where they've got a lot of specialized terms and knowledge. If you're a lawyer, every other lawyer in the office might get your witty reference, but that doesn't mean your mechanic will. Likewise, the mechanic's clever transmission joke might make the junior ad executive scratch her head.

Speaking for myself, I could probably name over three hundred Marvel or DC comic characters on sight, or describe what they look like. I've got a fairly large background in archaeology and astronomy. From my years in the film industry I can rattle off tons of movie jargon that would leave most of you scratching your heads. I've got a higher-than-average knowledge about firearms, and have fired more types than many military weapons experts (the film industry again). I also play a popular miniatures game with tons of backstory, which means I can spew out pages of silly facts about fictional alien life-forms like Tyranids, Kroot, or Necrons.

Yet, I'd never assume everyone else knows this stuff. I sure as hell wouldn't assume you'd understand some of the jokes that have built up between my friends over the years. They make us laugh, but you'd probably stand there with a blank look on your face.

It's also worth noting that the reverse of this is true. If I assume my audience isn't going to know anything I'm talking about, I'm just going to annoy them. If I waste pages explaining that Nazis are bad, people need to breathe oxygen, or that the man who just got his leg torn off might die from blood loss... well, I'm not going to be holding anyone's interest for long

A writer needs to have a firm grasp of what their intended audience knows. It doesn't matter if I think everyone should know the genestealer reproductive cycle-- most people don't. If I do this, I'd be confusing my audience at best, talking down to them at worst. And that's when they put the manuscript down in that big pile on the left.

So now you know. And knowing is half the battle.

Next time, we all need to be punctual. More or less.

Until then, go write.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Pinocchio Syndrome

If you've never heard that term and are grasping for a pop culture reference... don't bother. I just made it up. The reasons why will soon be as plain as...

Well, you'll see.

As I've said once or thrice before, good dialogue is everything. We learn so much subtle stuff from characters by what they say and how they say it. Does Bob call Cindy his girlfriend or his woman or his old lady? Is she his lover, his ho, his chica, his bitch, his significant other? No matter what their relationship is, the words he uses to describe it tell us something about him.

One term that comes up a lot while reading contest submissions--or writing of any type, really—is on the nose dialogue. I’ve seen it tossed out to beginners numerous times in feedback, but usually without any explanation. It’s the difference between “Why are you always so disrespectful to me in staff meetings, Bob?” and “What the hell’s your problem, anyway?” At its very simplest, what this means is the character (or characters) are saying precisely what they’re thinking with no subtlety to it whatsoever. There's no inference, no implications, no innuendoes or layered meanings. It’s dialogue stating the obvious, and I've mentioned before what a horrible idea it is to state the obvious.

On the nose dialogue usually strips away character, too. When your gangsta drug dealers begin to lament the failed potential of their fallen brethren, they're not speaking like people who grew up on the street. That's the writer poking through and trying to tell us something. Often it's to spew out some character elements or backstory, and it comes out awkward because it's being forced from the character speaking.

To be clear, there is a difference between on the nose and exposition. While most exposition is on the nose, the reverse is not always true. You can have on the nose dialogue when people talk about their relationship (or someone else's), the Thai food they had last night, or the movie they want to go see tomorrow.

Here's a couple things you should be on the lookout for--these are all either common with on the nose dialogue or sure signs you're avoiding it.

Proper English--I've mentioned before the difference between written English and spoken dialogue. When dialogue follows all the rules of grammar it starts to get wooden and lose a lot of its flavor. Sometimes there's a point to this. One of my own characters in Ex-Heroes, Stealth, is a bit of a grammar Nazi. So is Data on Star Trek (robots and aliens always have great grammar for some reason). For the vast majority of us though, we get a bit loose when we speak. We use contractions and mismatch verbs and numbers. It just happens. When we don't, dialogue becomes rigid, and that's just a short shuffle from being wooden.

Characters talking to themselves--Nine times out of ten, if someone’s talking to themselves out loud, it’s on the nose. All those monologues about stress, Yakko psyching himself up, or Dot trying to figure out how to get past the thirteen ninjas to free Wakko... odds are every bit of that is on the nose dialogue.

Telling what's happening--While it's never good, on the nose dialogue is a killer in scripts, especially when it takes this route. It's when characters describe what they're doing for no real reason. Not when they explain what they're doing (say, defusing a bomb), but when they're just saying their actions aloud. Have you ever heard an old radio-show when the actors had to depend on just dialogue with no visuals at all?

"Lamont, is that you? Help me! I'm tied to this chair."

"Easy, Margot. Just let me get this blindfold off you... there we go."

"Oh, that's better. I can see now."

This kind of clumsy dialogue immediately tells the reader that the writer isn’t picturing this scene visually at all. For screenwriters, this kind of thing is almost guaranteed to get your script tossed in the big pile on the left.

Lack of jargon--The idea of slang has been around for a long time. Bram Stoker talked about it in Dracula 120 years ago, and it's a safe bet printers had their own special jargon in the workplace less than a decade after Guttenberg made his printing press. Everyone has their own set of words and terms that gets used within their particular group, and these words spill out into most of their conversations. In other words, lawyers speak like lawyers, mechanics talk like mechanics, and sci-fi geeks with no lives talk like Klingons (or Na'Vi, these days, I guess). When these characters lose these basic subtleties, their dialogue starts getting on the nose.

Lack of flirting--It sounds silly, I know, but it's one to look for. This is a fact of human nature. We show affection for one another. We all flirt with friends and lovers and potential lovers, sometimes even at extremely inopportune times. It's not always serious, it can take many forms, but that little bit of playfulness and innuendo is present in most casual dialogue exchanges. It's impossible to flirt with on the nose dialogue because it requires subtlety and implied meanings. If absolutely no one in your story flirts on any level, there might be something to consider there.

Five easy things to look for in your dialogue. They're not the only ways your words can be on the nose, but they're the most common, by far.

Next week, I'd like to talk to you about... well, you know. Everybody knows, right?

Until then, go write.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

The Golden Rule

Just to be clear up front, this is not about doing unto others. Sorry.

When I started this blog way, way back in the dusty year of 2007, there wasn't much to it. To be honest, it really started as a column I was pitching to one of the editors at Creative Screenwriting. If you look back at some of those early posts you can still see that more formal edge to them. Anyway, I pitched the idea and a few sample columns to one editor, then to the editor that replaced him, and then casually to the publisher once at a party. Then I said screw it and tossed them up at Blogspot under the best name I could come up with in fifteen seconds. Where they sat for many months until I decided I wanted to spew about something else I was seeing new writers doing. I think I'd just finished reading for a screenwriting contest and was just baffled how so many people could keep making the same mistakes again and again.

It was also about the time I was giving up crew work in the film industry to start writing full time. It meant I was browsing a lot of other blogs and message boards. It struck me that while there were all-too-many folks offering "useful advice" about getting an agent, submission formats, publishing contracts, and so on, there were very few that offered any help with writing. Which seems kind off bass-ackward, as old folks say to young folks. Also, the few folks that were speaking about writing tended to do so with absolute certainty, despite a lack of credentials of any sort whatsoever. Worse still, a huge number of people were blindly following those folks and their bizarre "rules" of writing..

Now, I did lots of writing stuff as a teenager, but it wasn't until college that I discovered how many markets there were, and how many magazines devoted to the craft of writing. Again, old fashioned as it may make me sound (granted, there was a different guy named Bush in the White House then), this pile of magazines did something the internet doesn't. It actually forced me to learn the material rather than just plopping it in front of me. I had to search every article, every column, and read through them in their entirety hoping to find a hint or tip on how to improve my writing skills.

One thing that became apparent pretty quick, even to not-yet-legal-to-drink me, was that a lot of these tips contradicted each other. Here's an article about how you should write eight hours a day, but this one says four, and that one says don't write unless you're inspired. She says to outline and plot out everything, he says to just go with the flow and see what happens. One columnist suggests saving money by not asking for your submission back, but another writer points out that this creates the instant mental image that your manuscript is disposable.

Y'see, Timmy, if you ask twenty different novelists how they create a character, you're going to get twenty different answers. If you ask twenty screenwriters how they write a scene, you're going to get twenty different answers. And all of these answers are valid, because all of these methods and tricks work for that writer.

Which is the real point of the ranty blog. I want to offer folks some of the tips and ideas I sifted out of all those articles and columns, along with some I've developed on my own after trying (and failing and trying again) to write a hundred or so short stories, scripts, and novels.

To be blunt, I don't expect anyone to follow the tips and rules here letter for letter. Heck, as I've said before, I don't follow all of them myself. I sure as hell wouldn't call it a sure-fire way to write a bestselling novel or anything like that, because writing cannot be distilled down to A-B-C-Success. The goal here is to put out a bunch of methods and advice and examples which the dozen or so of you reading this can pick and choose and test-drive until you find (or develop) the method that works best for you. That's the Golden Rule here.

What works for me probably won't work for you. And it definitely won't work for that guy.

There are provisos to this, of course. Not everything about writing is optional. You must know how to spell. You must understand the basics of grammar. If you're going into screenwriting, you must know the current accepted format. A writer cannot ignore any of these requirements, and that is an absolute must. Past all that, you must be writing something fresh and interesting.

I think this is where most fledgling writers mess up. They assume it's all-or-nothing. Not only do you have the artistic freedom to ignore the strict per-page plot points of Syd Field or Blake Snyder, you can actually ignore plot altogether. You're also free to ignore motivation, perspective, structure, and spelling.

It doesn't help that there's a whole culture of wanna-bes out there encouraging this view because... well, I can only assume because they're too lazy to put any real effort into their own writing. If they get everyone else doing it, then it means they're not doing anything wrong.

To take veteran actress Maggie Smith slightly out of context (she was talking about method actors): "Oh, we have that in England, too. We call it wanking."

Anyway, I'm getting off topic. I hope I've made it clear what the cleverly-named ranty blog is about, and that most of you will still tune in next week to see what I decide to prattle on about.

Speaking of which, next week I wanted to talk about prattling on.

Until then, go write.

Friday, January 8, 2010

The First Rule of Fight Club

Starting the year off late, which doesn't set a good precedent, but also with a surprisingly clever pop-culture reference (as you'll come to see), which does. If you don't know the reference... go. Just go. I'm not joking, please leave now.

All those wanna-bes and posers gone?

Good. So, I figured I'd start by ranting about something I see crop up more and more in fiction. Would-be screenwriters, this week might be a bit thin for you, but if you follow along, who knows, I may say something clever.

Anyway, there’s a fiction writer (and sometimes writing coach) named Damon Knight who points out that first person is really a bit of a trap. A lot of people use it because they think it makes their story more personal, more realistic, and easier to get into. It also creates an instant character in the story—the narrator.

Truth is, though, first person is one of the most difficult tenses to write well. It isn’t personal, it isn’t realistic, and it makes it extremely difficult to create a character. I mean if it's so easy, why aren't the so-called hacks like Stephen King or Dean Koontz using it more often? Oh, sure, King's written a few first person short stories, a novella or two, but the vast majority of his work is plain old third person perspective.

The reasons first person is so tough are kind of invisible, which is why it's a trap. They're things that make perfect sense when they get pointed out, but until then... well, it's easy to wander in, set off a dozen tripwires, step into the beam of light, and suddenly you're at the bottom of a deep hole. Hopefully not one filled with stakes.

To be clear, I'm not saying first person is a bad tense to write a story in. Far from it. Some of my favorite stories are written from this perspective, and it is some gorgeous, genius writing. It's definitely not an easy viewpoint, though. Even experienced writers will run into a lot of problems with it, and inexperienced writers will often hit them at terminal velocity.

Here are a couple of those hidden problems. If you've got a first person story, you may want to take a glance through and make sure it doesn't suffer from any of them.

The first problem is suspense and tension. You've probably heard this one before, because it's one of the first issues that needs to be addressed in a story with this perspective. Any story has to have a degree of conflict and tension, but in a first person story a thick layer of that tension is scraped off the top because of the format. If we're only halfway through the book, we know there has to be more than the narrator's tale than just getting the girl. We also know the main character isn't going to be killed in a first person tale because... well, they're telling us the story.

Yeah, there've been a couple clever stories that have gotten around this roadblock, but they usually do it with a bit of a cop out. At this point, enough stories have revealed their first-person character is a ghost, angel, vampire, or some such thing that this reveal is probably just going to frustrate or bore readers more than anything else.

From this angle, writing in first person just drives us into a corner.

Next, first person is a very limited viewpoint. The reader can only see, hear, and experience things the main character does. We never get to see the other side of the door and we have no idea what happens to Wakko when he leaves the room. We don't get the suspense of us knowing something's happening that the character doesn't know about. This also means we can't be privy to extra detail, nor can we have any doubt if something did or didn't register with the main character.

By its very nature, this also requires most first person stories to be told from a very "average-man" level. If the character is too smart and figures things out too fast, it kills the story. If said character is rock-stupid and can't solve a single problem, it kills the story and frustrates the reader. Consider that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's detective stories are told in first person, but not by Holmes. They're told by Watson, a very smart and able doctor--but nowhere near the range of his best friend.

So, from this angle, writing in first person drives us into another corner. A different corner, yes, but a corner nonetheless.

Another problem that relates back to viewpoint is that you can't have forward motion in your story without action, and the common way action grinds to a halt is when the writer stops for description. I mentioned a while back that the problem with pausing to describe details about the main character's height, weight, eye and hair color, shoe size, skin tone, education, and preferred underwear color (sorry Facebook folks) is that everything comes to a halt while we do.

This kind of gear-grinding stop is bad enough in a regular story, but in a first person story what's the only way we can get this description? That's right-- if the main character starts talking about themselves. And what would you think of me if I spent the next ten or fifteen minutes talking about my chiseled abs, broad shoulders, or rock hard glutes (all of which, I can assure you, are a complete fabrication).

So in a first person story, this kind of description brings the story to a halt and it makes your main character look more than a bit egotistical. What kind of woman writes two pages in her diary about how hot she is? How much of a ninja are you if you pause to admire your posture and build in a convenient mirror?

Heck, imagine how awkward this would seem in a horror or adventure story? I open the door to reveal the armed terrorist/ hungry zombie/ angry ninja and I pause to describe them as they're leaping at me. The thing is, we see a lot faster than we can write or read. My first person character may register a lot of details, but it's a very tricky balance leaving those details in or out during moments of action. I can notice the ninja is a woman with green eyes and a wisp of red hair peeking out of her hood, but if I pause to say that it seems that she's just standing there in a very un-ninja-ish way. If I describe her afterwards, I now have to pause and refer back to something the character actually saw two or three pages back.

And so, here we are, written into a corner again.

For the record, I've just decided the word for a female ninja will be ninjette. At least for our purposes here. Just thought I'd get that in writing.

Now, Knight has a nice exercise in his book Creating Short Fiction. What he suggests is to rewrite a few chapters into third person with as few changes as possible. Don't restructure, don't add anything-- just turn me into him or her. He really suggests rewriting the whole thing, but he’s usually talking about short stories. Twenty or thirty pages will do for most of us here.

Once you've done this, re-read your story. If the character you had in first person has vanished, it’s because there wasn’t a character there to start with. Just the illusion of one. If your story vanishes... well, there's some work to be done. That's the trick of first person, and why you have to be careful with it. It gives the impression of creating a personality and defining a person, but it rarely does.

This ranty blog (any blog, really) is a great example of a first person trick. I may seem personable, funny, and clever--but do any of you reading this actually know me? Okay, granted, a handful actually do, but I know there's another, much larger handful that wouldn't know me if they bumped into me on the street. It feels like you know me, my likes, my dislikes--you may even have an image of me in your head. Once you stop and think about it, though... you really don't. Try writing down a rough character sketch of me based off the two or twenty times you've read something here and you'll be surprised how little there really is. If I rewrote this post as a third-person column I would vanish altogether.

Which is a great time to wrap this up.

Next week I'd like to take a moment to re-introduce the blog for those who came in late. It's still early in 2010 and I've been at this for almost a year and a half, so it might be good for all of us to recap.
Until then, go write.