Thursday, June 24, 2010

Maybe I Didn't Say Every Single Little Tiny Syllable, No...

Think of Bruce Campbell and you’ll have an idea what the title--and this week’s rant--refers to.
So, imagine flipping open a book or a script and reading that Ognaron took his airepulsor carriage out for a twenty wobosa drive along the neerwoks of Qin’nixxia on the Crossing of Terafils.

Does that even mean anything? I mean, you could probably sit down, diagram the sentence, and get some very rough ideas of what one or two of these words refer to. Maybe. More or less. How often do you want to do that, though? Can you imagine weeding through a whole paragraph like that? Or multiple pages?

Of course not. How could you keep track of any of it? You’d probably go mad. I know a few script readers who have. Heck, there’s a reason most professional readers will tell you their least favorite kind of screenplay is the dreaded sci-fi/ fantasy script (well, maybe tied with the “based on a true story” script). A large percentage of them take hours to slog through for reasons just like this.

No, we’d all rather just read that Ognaron took his hover car out for a twenty minute drive along the ocean cliffs on Father’s Day. The fact that the writer isn’t wasting time with silly or pretentious words tells us they’re more interested in getting to the story. As I’ve mentioned once or thrice before, what every reader wants to see is forward motion. It doesn’t matter if it’s a short story, a script, or a novel, the last thing the reader wants is to get hung up on something that just doesn’t matter.

Here’s a helpful hint. Try to sum up your story in two pages. You don’t need to do it on paper or anything, just get the whole thing organized in your head so you could jot it down or explain all of it to someone in five or ten minutes.

Got it?

Okay, if at any point you find yourself simplifying some of your terms for the summary-- referring to your character’s airepulsor carriage as a hovercraft, for example--then just use that simpler term in the actual story. Don’t use interlobal trans-psion pulse communication when you can just say telepathy. There’s no need to overcomplicate a term people are already familiar with. Let’s just call a pistol a pistol and be done with it. You’ve got better things for your readers to spend their time on, right?

Likewise, if at any point you find yourself saying or thinking something like “In this dimension, X is called Y,” then just use X. Why force the reader to remember an awkward name for something common? Like using said, it’s more likely they’ll skim past something common than ponder its use on an alien/ alternate world.
I’ve mentioned this little tidbit before. In the preface to his novel Nightfall, Isaac Asimov explains that he uses miles, hours, and years not because the planet his story is set on is somehow related to Earth, but because he didn’t want to overcomplicate things. Sure, he could’ve made up new names for everything but, seriously, what would be the point?

Another related problem in fantasy or future worlds is when the writer attempts to create their own slang or idioms. I read one book that decided a few hundred years in the future no one would say God and Jesus--everyone used Yahweh and Kristo instead. The problem with this is that I went through the first 50 pages of the book thinking Kristo was the name of one of the main characters (who would sometimes refer to herself in the third person).

Y’see, Timmy, if I don’t know the name you’re using, or the ideas behind it, I have to assume it’s the name of a character. Let’s take a look at a few simple sentences.

--“Christ, what are you doing here?”
--“We’re going to have another child, if God is willing.”
--“Jesus, it’s good to see you.”
--“God knows what Marc’s up to this time!”

These all make sense, right? No confusion about what any of these sentences mean. However, what if I switch the names like this?

--“Sarah, what are you doing here?”
--“We’re going to have another child, if Catherine is willing.”
--“Tim, it’s good to see you.”
--“Gillian knows what Marc’s up to this time!”

See what happens? The sentences are conveying different information. With these more “casual” names, the bits of dialogue shift from expletives or figures of speech to people being directly addressed or referenced. And if you don’t know which category the names fall into...

--“Tokar, what are you doing here?”
--“We’re going to have another child, if Neeva is willing.”
--“Grothlaxia, it’s good to see you.”
--“Ostarix knows what Marc’s up to this time!”

Do you have any idea what these sentences are saying now? They’re almost impossible to decipher without a frame of reference for those names. Is Neeva someone’s wife, husband, or deity? Heck, Tokar and Ostarix might not even be names at all. What if they’re alien curses or swear words that are only capitalized because they start the sentence?

So, as readers, when we come across something like this it usually does one of two things. It either brings us to a grinding halt as we try to figure out what this word means, or we make assumptions about what the word means and the story comes to a grinding halt later when we figure out we’re wrong. On very rare occasions, we make the assumption, guess right, and the story flows on without incident.

Really, though... Why would you risk drawing attention to yourself like that? As a writer, do you want your story to hinge on the reader possibly making a correct guess? Are you so certain the reader will keep going afterward that you’ll risk bringing the narrative to a dead stop?

I didn’t think so.

Don’t overcomplicate your story with details that are just going to slow it down and drive readers away. If you don’t need to make up a word or a phrase or a term... then don’t. Just keep it simple and they’ll love you for it.

Next time, I think I’ll either prattle on about something funny or try to shock you all somehow. Not sure which yet.

Until then, go write.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

What Your Story Needs is THIS...

There is no pop culture reference this week. There's a good one on the tip of my tongue, but I can't get it. So I just went with this.

Anyway, let me tell you things I like in stories, and a few I don’t.

I like casual dialogue, but I really dislike it when it descends into jargon or affected accents. I like exotic settings, but not alien, unrelatable ones. I like action and maybe a bit of a mystery or puzzle. I love a good twist. I prefer that the sex and violence be a bit more implied and bit less graphic. I enjoy seeing a smaller story set against a broader canvas. I like writers who use the scalpel over the sledgehammer and don’t feel the need to sink to the lowest common denominator. I love smart humor and subtle wit. I’m not much on romance novels, get really bored by inner-city “gangsta” films, and I despise pretentious material, but past that I read in almost every genre, even westerns.

What does all this have to do with your writing?

Absolutely nothing.

Seriously. Doesn’t mean a damned thing.

A bad habit most of us have when we give criticism is to mistake what we like personally in a book or film with actual corrections that need to be made. If someone gives me a story loaded with explicit violence and sex, it may not be to my taste but that doesn’t mean they’ve done anything wrong. I didn’t see the point to any of the Hostel or Saw movies, but in and of itself that doesn’t mean the writers were off course. These franchises have brought in several hundred million dollars, so it’s clear they appeal to quite a few people.

A far worse habit, though--the one a fair amount of fledgling writers fall into-- is to accept those likes and dislikes as valid criticism. A lot of folks don’t have the confidence or experience to sift out the useful comments (“You switch tenses here and here. And you spelled misspelled wrong.”) from the more personal and subjective ones some people give (“Zombies are overdone. You should make them all Frankenstein monsters.”)

A few random examples...

I’ve mentioned my college attempt at a novel, The Suffering Map, once or thrice. Started in college, finished almost exactly ten years later. Once it was done, I showed it too a few friends and associates. Most were fairly positive with a few notes here and there. Another could have even been called pretty enthusiastic.

One, though, probably burned through two or three red pens. As he saw it, there were some major flaws in the story. The biggest was that Miguel, a former gang member, didn’t go running back to his gang for protection when things started getting scary. Later on, when things were full-on dangerous, he should have a dozen gang members with him, because he should’ve gone back earlier when things were getting scary. As I read on through his notes, it became clear that my friend had a very different idea of what direction my story should’ve gone in. What the story was didn’t interest him at all--he was critiquing it based off what it thought it should be. The further I read, the harsher his comments got because the story was (as he saw it) going more and more off track. About twenty or so pages before the end he scribbled a note that he’d stopped reading because I’d just gotten everything wrong.

Story the second...

A friend of mine was visiting L.A. a while back to pitch a screenplay he’d been working on. It was a dark crime drama that aimed very high. The mysteries unfolded slowly and some weren’t fully spelled out for the audience. Some motives remained murky. In the draft he showed me, even the end was a bit vague (although I think he tightened it up later). A very nice story, but definitely not one for the mass market.

I tossed out the idea of a frame. Perhaps the film could begin at the climactic stand-off moment, the hero’s decision, then jump back to “three days earlier” to show us the events that led up to that stand off. It would begin with a bang (a bruised and battered man held at gunpoint and told to make a choice) to draw the audience in, then settle down to tell the story once they had that hook in their mouths, so to speak.

He considered it overnight and told me the next day that he’d decided against the frame. He had his story and he didn’t want to change how it was being told. If someone didn’t like it--no big deal. Odds are there’d be someone else who would. I agreed with him and that was it--we moved on to talking about a series of magazine articles I’d been working on.

And if I wanted to open a real can of worms, I could bring up LOST as story the third and talk about the fair share of people who didn’t like the ending. But we’d probably end up getting sidetracked into time-travel debates and mysteries vs. resolutions and stuff like that. So I’ll plant that seed in your mind, but we won’t go there...

Y’see, Timmy, at the end of the day, you’re the one writing the story. Just because someone doesn’t like it doesn’t mean that it’s wrong. You need to be telling the story you want to tell.

Now, I know this may sound a bit contradictory to some things I’ve said before, but it isn’t. There’s a bunch of stuff you must do a certain way in your writing, and you must get these thing right. Things like spelling, grammar, believable characters, logical structure, and so on.

However, the writing process is entirely your choice. You don’t have to outline or notecard or write beat sheets or anything if you don’t want to. Feel free to start on page one with no clue what’s going to happen at the end of your story. How you write is up to you.

Likewise, what you choose to write about is your choice. And no matter what anyone tries to tell you, your choice can’t be wrong because... well... it’s your choice. You can’t be wrong for wanting to write about zombies or gothic romances or investment bankers any more than I can be wrong for liking Almond Joy bars, pizza, and the end of LOST.

Keep in mind, I’m still not saying anyone will want to buy your story. Or even read it. Being true to your vision does not always and immediately equate to a contract and money in the bank. Heck, there’s always that chance your story could be complete crap (God knows some of mine have been). But it’s still your story. If you’re trying to meet someone else’s expectations and desires, your writing is going to feel forced and fake.

And yes, it will show.

Next time, I’d like to speak with you about communicating via interlobal trans-psion pulses, if Grolthaxia is willing.

Until then, go write.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Lifts and Supports

Perverts. Your minds always go there, don’t they?

By the way, I’d like to take this moment to note that this marks my 100th post on this here ranty blog. Who would’ve ever guessed I’d have this much to say about writing. Well, without it devolving into incoherent jabbering and a lot of gestures.


There’s a comic book writer/ novelist/ screenwriter by the name of Peter David. If you’re reading this and haven’t heard of him, I highly recommend hitting Borders or Amazon and grabbing one or three samples of his work. The man knows how to write characters like no one else.

In one of the early issues of his run on the comic X-Factor, David had someone make the keen observation that every super-hero group has a strong guy. The immediate joke was to explain the huge muscle-bound guy on the team (who was then inspired to adopt the codename “Strong Guy”), but there’s a larger point to be made with this.

Every superhero group has a strong guy because at some point they need a strong guy. As a writer, the reason you have a character who can bench press 90 tons is because at some point in the story there will be a Sherman Tank that needs throwing, a house-sized boulder that needs to be shifted, or a giant ninja-robot between your team and their ultimate goal. You put the strong guy on the team because you’re going to give him a chance to show off his strength.

This has been an enduring theme in literature for centuries. The mismatched team where every member eventually becomes necessary. You’ve probably heard some variation on the classic fairy tale about the six friends. A young man sets out to perform some tasks so he can win the hand of a princess. During his journeys he becomes friends with the fastest man in the world, the strongest man in the world, the hungriest man in the world, the man with the sharpest vision in the world, and so on. Oddly enough, to complete his tasks the young man needs someone who is incredibly fast, strong, hungry, etc. Charles McKeown and Terry Gilliam adapted this tale, by the way, and called it The Adventures of Baron Munchausen.

Now, there’s a simple corollary to this I’m sure most of you have already figured out. If there isn’t something for the strong guy to do, you shouldn’t have a strong guy on your team. You’ll notice few superhero groups include someone who can blink at amazing speed. None of the variations of the Grimm’s fairy tale feature someone who can shoe oxen better than anyone else in the world. In no version of the Ocean’s 11 films do they make a point of getting a great pastry chef on their team (although I freely admit I never saw the last one so... maybe they did). These people all may be fascinating in their own way, but they don’t really contribute anything to the particular story being told. High-speed blinking may be superhuman and somewhat interesting, but it’s also kind of useless when you’re saving the world from Galactus.

Thing is, this little observation holds for every character, not just ones in genre stories. If the character isn’t doing anything and doesn’t contribute, why are they there? As the name implies, a supporting character should be helping to hold things up. Not big things--that’s what your main characters are for--but they’re bearing the load around the perimeter and on the edges. They keep the tone balanced, give the main characters a sounding board for ideas and exposition, and help sustain the suspension of disbelief. If you’ll pardon my saying it, they’re the ones keeping it real.

A good chunk of the time, though, a supporting character get stuck into a story for the wrong reasons. Often it’s because the writer has seen a similar character in a similar story, so said writer just wedges a rough copy of that character into their own story. It doesn’t matter if this character does anything or not, there’s just this unspoken assumption they have to be there. A lot of comic-relief characters come about this way. Fledgling comedy writers stick in the goofy sidekick or wild neighbor because comedies always have a goofy sidekick or wild neighbor. Zorro, the Green Hornet, and Batman all have helpful manservants, so I should stick one into my adaptations of Doctor Fate, right?

Y’see, Timmy, much like the golden rule, just because something works in your story doesn’t mean it’s going to work in my story. This is especially true of the characters. I can’t just cram a random person into my novel or screenplay because there’s a good chance they don’t mesh with the story or the existing characters. Forcing them in means they’re unnatural, which usually means they’ve just become unbelievable characters within the scope of this story. Why would Phoebe and Dot possibly be friends when they’re complete opposites in every way? How could a bumbler like Yakko have possibly made it onto this elite squad of high-tech thieves? Why would dark ninja overlord Wakko allow someone like me (or worse, me as played by Rob Schneider) to stumble along behind him on his mission of vengeance? There has to be a reason for a supporting character to be in your story, otherwise they’re just eating up words and pages that should be spent on your main characters.

Speaking of which, a follow up problem is when main characters take a backseat to the supporting characters. We’re following Wakko for the whole manuscript, but suddenly at the end Chicken Boo dashes in and defuses the bomb, gets the girl, or lands the plane. To be terribly honest, I did this myself in the first two drafts of Ex-Heroes. It wasn’t St. George that beat the monster in the end, but a guy on the walls of the Mount named Ilya. It was still a fun, cool scene, but what I’d effectively done with it was made my hero useless. He didn’t save the day--some regular guy with a rifle did. Not impossible, but also not what this story was about.

Main characters do the main things. Supporting characters do lesser things. In the movie Aliens, Corporal Hicks survives and helps Ripley and Newt escape the hiveworld because he’s a main character. Vice versa, he’s a main character because he survives and helps Ripley and Newt escape the hiveworld. Aliens doesn’t focus on Frost or Apone or even Vasquez because they’re the lesser characters. One of the reason we can tell this is because they die early on in the story.

It sounds a bit like circular logic, I admit. However, don’t look at it from the story point of view (where it’s confusing) but from the storytelling point of view. If Hicks wasn’t the main character, why would he survive over someone else? Why would he succeed where others fail? I’m not a good storyteller if the focus of my tale isn’t about the people who survive and succeed (assuming anyone does survive this particular story).

Dan Abnett has a habit of introducing characters in his Gaunt’s Ghosts series, giving us a name and a thumbnail description, showing them in a few action scenes, and then killing them. Why? Because the Ghosts are fighting a war. They’re almost constantly wrapped up in one battle or another, and, awful as it is to say, it’s not a believable war when only the bad guys die. Abnett introduces these secondary characters--and then often shoots them in the head-- to remind the reader how brutal life is on the battlefield. Even the sci-fi battlefield of the future.

Next time around, on a somewhat similar note, I’d like to prattle on about your story. The one you want to tell.

Until then, go write.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

The Blueprint

There’s a phrase that gets tossed around a lot in Hollywood, usually by directors, actors, and producers. It’s kind of insulting and condescending the way it gets used, but there is a degree of truth to it. That phrase is...

The script is just a blueprint.

Now, the reason I say that’s condescending is because this gets used by directors who want to justify rewriting scenes and actors who want to justify changing (or just making up) lines. We’d never say the director’s just there to block out the scene or the actor’s just supposed to read the dialogue, but for some reason it’s acceptable to say the writer is just a stepping stone for everyone else’s brilliance.

Here’s my take on this. There are numerous stories in Hollywood of brilliant scripts that became average-to-sub-par movies when the director and actors were done with them. Pay It Forward. Excess Baggage. Wanted. Little Monsters. Heck, even Suburban Commando. Yeah, you’re cringing, but have you ever read the original screenplays for any of these films? The ones that sold and got the project greenlit? Most of them were damned entertaining, and one or two of them were just phenomenal. Who do you think’s responsible for the movies that came out of these scripts? The key grip? The wardrobe supervisor? Heck, the writer of one recently released film confided to me that the whole reason the movie went through numerous expensive reshoots was because the director had made “a few changes” during the original shoot which destroyed the character arcs for both protagonists (much to the frustration of both the screenwriter and the producers).

Now, to be fair, how often have you heard of a brilliant director and great actors being saddled with a sub-par script which sank their film? A few times for that, too, right?

Riddle me this, though, Timmy-- if the script was sub-par, why did they decide to go into production with it?

Doesn’t make sense, does it? No one’s going to build a house if the blueprints don’t include a foundation, a front door, or a staircase to the second floor. Considering how much more a motion picture costs than a house, does anyone here really believe a studio would march into production with a crap script? That a director would agree to work on it? That actors would rush to be in it?

Unless, of course, those people don’t know what they’re doing, either...

But I digress...

As I said up above, there is some truth to the script as a blueprint analogy. No matter what Hollywood and auteur wankers like to say, the screenwriter is the architect of the movie. They’re the one who sits down with a vision and an idea that gets committed to paper and referred to throughout the construction process. Even if the film is an adaptation or a remake, it’s the writer who has to plan it all out and decide what to keep and what to discard. There’s a reason the architect said put the door here, the window there, and the support beam right there. A screenplay is a blueprint, and when you don’t follow the blueprints--or don’t know how to read them-- you get cracks, crumbling, and sometimes a full-on collapse.


(Yeah, there’s a however. If there wasn’t you wouldn’t need to read any of this,would you?)

This does not mean the screenwriter is the end-all, be-all of the process. A good architect knows there’s a lot of stuff he or she gets to shape and insist on, but just as many that they have no control over. Frank Lloyd Wright designed some of the most beautiful structures in the world, but he didn’t have a say on the appliances in the kitchen, the living room carpet, or what the owners decided to use for bedlinen. There’s a point the architect has absolute control, but there’s also a point where the blueprints have to get handed over to the contractor, the painter, and the interior decorator. Not to mention the people who are buying the house. Heck, if the architect gets hired to design a beach house and they turned in plans for a Victorian office building, it doesn’t matter how good that office building is, they’re not getting another job.

Let’s stick with this metaphor for a few more paragraphs. Imagine you hired an architect to design your new house and the first two pages of the plans are an explanation of how the building may look odd but is actually modelled after the house the architect lived in as a child. That house was built by his great-uncle who had fought in World War Two and returned home to Boston afterwards to build a home that resembled the structures he’d seen while fighting in the Pacific Rim. None of this has anything to do with your house, granted, but the architect felt it was worth mentioning. And eating up two pages of blueprints with.

How are the carpenters going to react when they see that half of every page is instructions on how to use a circular saw, lists of preferred nails, and step-by-step guides for using a measuring tape? There’s an extra 50 pages worth of blueprints here telling everyone on the construction crew how to do their jobs--jobs that more often than not the architect doesn’t know how to do himself. How far in will everyone get before they start ignoring everything the architect’s written alongside the diagrams? And then what happens when there finally is something important in all those notes?

Anyone who’s ever taken drafting knows how important clean lines are. If the architect’s cluttered every diagram up by drawing in wood grains or micromanaging every stud and strut, it just get confusing. We don’t need to see all those individual nails, but we do need to see that load-bearing beam and it’s getting lost in the glut of useless detail. A good foreman knows there needs to be a load-bearing beam somewhere in this wall, and if he can’t find it in the blueprints he’ll just put it in himself. If that messes up plans for the second floor fireplace... ah, well.

One of the biggest mistakes beginners make with screenplays is not understanding what a screenplay is. It’s not an exhaustive list of instructions for the director and the crew. It isn’t a magical tool for making actors do and say certain precise things. It’s not a chance to dazzle people with high-falutin’ vocabulary or hyper-detailed imagery. It’s a framework.

A screenplay--a good screenplay-- is the underlying structure of a film. It’s the solid framework everything else is built on. It’s careful balancing act of minimal, concise language that’s got to have as much punch and nuance to it as humanly possible. It isn’t choked with excess verbiage or screen directions in the same way the plans for a house don’t list china patterns and carpet selections.

It is the blueprint of the film.

Just not in that insulting, condescending way those other folks say it.

Next time, I’d like to talk about something that lifts and supports.

No, not that. You can find that lots of other places online.

Until next week, go write.