Thursday, July 29, 2010

This Week, On A Very Special “Writer on Writing”

I’m sure most of you reading this are familiar with the title of this week’s little rant. Nowadays it’s just useless marketing hyperbole. I mean, really, is every episode of Gray’s Anatomy that powerful?

If you watched television as a kid, though, you knew that phrase was a hidden message from the network. We all knew “on a very special episode of...” really meant “this week’s episode is going to suck.”

Really suck.

Because “on a very special episode of...” meant this week wasn’t going to be about laughs or action or something enjoyable. It was going to be about a message. A message that, more often than not, was wedged and crammed and kicked into the episode until it fit. The characters were going to talk about racism or bigotry or death or drugs or sex or something else that just did not fit the tone of the show. Those episodes always felt awkward and forced because they disrupted the storytelling rhythm the shows had established.

One thing I see on a fairly regular basis is people who decide to write a story about a message. Not a story with a message, mind you, but a story about a message. There’s a small but oh-so-important difference there. When the writer is more interested in the message than the story, things quickly fall out of balance.

Let me give you a few examples.

I’ve seen scripts about people sinking deeper and deeper into addiction and dragging their friends and loved ones down with them. There’ve been more than a few stories about people who mess up the priorities of their lives and later come to realize what’s really important. I also read a story about the ghosts of aborted children haunting a clinic worker until he leads a crusade against his evil and sadistic employers. For the record, they really were evil and sadistic, and would keep a running tally of which doctor could abort the most babies in a day. I am dead serious about this.

I was even given one deeply disturbing script where a cute young woman came to realize that the real problem with America today was “all the coloreds moving in everywhere” and how much better off everything would be if we just got rid of them all... y’know, for the good of the country.

Yeah. I probably would’ve called the FBI about that last one if there’d been contact info on it. Needless to say, I gave them a low score.

Now, before anyone freaks out, there’s nothing wrong with having a message in your story. Most of the best stories do, on one level or another. Problems arise, however, when the writer approaches things from the wrong end, like some of the folks above did.

Here’s a simple test. If your story or script has a message in it (God is good, illegal immigrants are bad, Cthulhu is really bad), at what point did the message come into it? Did it grow naturally from the idea for a certain character or scene? Or did this story start with the message, and then get fleshed out with minor things like characters, plot, and dialogue?

When a writer starts with the message, everything else tends to get slaved to that singular idea. Characters in these tales tend to have awkward or unbelievable motivations because the story isn’t about what these folks would naturally, organically do. Their decisions, actions, and reactions are bent to reinforce the idea that’s being promoted. So they often come across as puppets that all enforce the idea. In one of the examples I gave above, no matter what your personal views, does anyone seriously think the people who work at abortion clinics sit around twirling their mustaches and giving out Machiavellian cackles as they do their job? Of course not. If they didn’t, though, they’d weaken the message that particular story was written around. So the story suffers because the characters aren’t relatable or believable.

This leads into the next point, which is dialogue. When the message dominates, dialogue suffers. People will spout out emphatic monologues, and a lot of the time they just sound insincere. The characters just end up serving as a mouthpiece for the writer’s views and ideas. Like motivations, this makes their words become stiff and wooden. It also has a tendency of being very on the nose. Characters can’t be there just to parrot the writer’s viewpoint on different matters.

Now, I gave some vague examples above, but let me give you a specific one. Who’s heard of Robinson Crusoe? Most of you, yes? I’m also guessing most of you have read it in one form or another as well.

How many of you have read the sequels?

I’m not talking about spin-offs or modern takes or anything like that, mind you. I’m taking about the two sequels Daniel Defoe himself wrote to one of the most famous books in English literature. Crusoe ends by claiming this is the end of the first volume of his adventures, after all.

Did you even know there were sequels?

Most people don’t, and they reason they don’t is because the sequels are considered to be some of Defoe’s worst writing. Now that he had an incredibly popular character, he decided he had a vehicle to pontificate about whatever he felt like. So in the next two books, Robinson Crusoe basically complains about people a lot and makes snide comments about how much more virtuous he is than everyone else. The most believable part of the second book is when the crew of his ship get tired of this non-stop commentary about their flaws and decide to dump Crusoe on the next island they pass (how’s that for irony?). The third book borders on being a manifesto from Defoe, thinly veiled by Crusoe’s voice.

Needless to say, books two and three didn’t go over that well with anyone.

Y’see, Timmy, your story can have a message, but it can’t be about the message. The message needs to serve the story, not the other way around. When it gets skewed like that, the writer ends up with something on par with one of those silly “Chick tracts” that tried to show how Dungeons & Dragons always led to suicide and Satanism. Not necessarily in that order.

And nobody here wants that, right?

Next week, I want to talk to you medieval primates about my boomstick.

Until then, go write.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Flow Charts

Do you want to be a writer? YES / NO

Continue to the next paragraph.

One thing I’ve mentioned here once or thrice before is flow. It’s one of those elements of writing that we’re all instinctively aware of but it rarely gets a consistent name put to it. I first heard it referred to as flow years back by a writing coach named Drusilla Campbell. It was such a perfect term I’ve used it myself ever since.

Flow is how well the reader can move through your writing. It’s the way every line of dialogue rolls off the tongue, how each paragraph and chapter draws the reader into the next one. Like the flow of a river or the flow of traffic on a freeway. When the flow of writing is going well, you love it.

We can also define what makes for bad flow. When the river or the freeway aren’t going so well you get rapids, bottlenecks, gridlock, and so on. More to the point, you get frustrated and angry. A story that makes you stumble a lot doesn’t flow well at all. Clumsy, wooden dialogue and poor characterization don’t work either. Whenever a reader pauses to scratch their head or roll their eyes over the latest “twist,” that’s another speedbump in the proverbial road. If you’ve ever tried a book and just couldn’t get into it, odds are the flow sucked. You’ll read, trip over a page or two, and put it back down.

Y’see, Timmy, it’s not a bad thing to shock the reader once or twice with a bit of unexpected action, a clever reveal, or something else that jars them out of complacency.. It’s important, though, to remember that those shocks are the exception, not the rule. If a story is nothing but flashbacks or “gotcha” moments one after another, it degenerates into nonsense and frustration.

Readers keep reading material with good flow because it’s easier to keep reading than to put it down. Stephen King writes books with great flow. So do Lee Child and Clive Cussler. They’re all famous for it, in fact. Shane Black’s screenplays are notoriously fun to read. It’s also a big part of the reason all these people keep selling their work for high sums of money.

Now, for the record, flow is another one of those things I believe you can’t easily work on and develop in your writing. It’s one of those X-factors, where you can manipulate each of the variables but still not affect the final outcome. You just have to keep writing and keep writing and eventually one day it will all come together.

For example, in Goju-ryu, one of the original three forms of karate developed on Okinawa, there’s a kata called senchin (no, trust me, this is another one of those brilliant metaphors). The moves for senchin are often taught to the white belt novices. The instructors know that by the time the novices become black belts, they’ll have an understanding of how all the moves go together and can start to work on the form itself. The Okinawan masters understand that working on parts doesn’t always help you master the whole. One day, it just all comes together.

I’ve mentioned most of these before (often in greater detail), but here are a few easy tips that can help the flow of a story. I’m not saying doing these guarantees great flow, but if you’re going out of your way not to do them... well...

Keep it interesting-- Easiest way in the world to keep readers from getting bored is not to be boring. A story that drags on and on before getting to the point doesn’t have good flow. If you’re telling a story, get to the story. If it’s a murder mystery, give me a body. If it’s sci fi, show me something amazing. If it’s a love story, show me passion on some level.

Keep it honest-- Nothing will kill a story’s flow faster than something that reads as inherently false. People don’t give long speeches about love, honor, or duty in real life. Most of us stopped with the silly, mushy, giggly, fluttering eyelids in ninth grade. And it takes a lot for someone to stay angry for days, let alone years. Fake emotions and actions comes from fake people. Fake people are boring. See above for tips on boring your reader.

Keep it simple-- If a writer tries to cram fifteen supporting characters, eight subplots, and the setup for four sequels into a 110 page screenplay, there’s not going to be a lot of room for a coherent story. If said writer decides to alternate each chapter, scene, or spoken line of dialogue between one of ten different time frames it’s going to keep knocking the reader out of the story as they try to keep track of what’s happening where and when to who. Don’t forget the basic goal of writing is to make the reader go on to the next page, not to baffle and confuse them.

Keep it smooth -- If you’re picking obscure, awkward, or overly-long words just to show off your vocabulary, there’s a good chance you’re disrupting the flow of your own writing. It’s very impressive that you can picture what a titian-haired female with atramentous works of muted ink inlaid in her flesh looks like, but it’s much smoother, easier, and just as visual to tell us she’s a tattoed redhead.

Keep it relevant--One thing that pretty much always causes a stumble is when the writer adds in something completely irrelevant. Not when this character makes an odd movie reference or a cat walks by for no reason. No, the stumbling point is when the writer spends a paragraph or a page or more on something that has no bearing on the story whatsoever. When there’s an exacting description of the bus driver, a monologue about the morality of Israel vs. Palestine, or a flashback to fourth grade art class, odds are the flow has just been dammed up for no reason.

Watch your dialogue-- You can get away with one character who talks like a robot and uses all those obscure, overly-long words I was just talking about. Possibly another who keeps slipping into a foreign language. Too much unnatural, stylized, or just plain bad dialogue brings the story (and the reader) to a screeching halt, though. Mechanics talk like mechanics. Investment bankers talk like investment bankers. Heavily armored mutants from Skaros talk like heavily... well, you get the point.

Have characters act in character.-- On the same panel where she talked about flow, Drusilla Campbell commented that when the nun viciously kills a gardener is also when most people remember they have laundry they should be folding. Master snipers who can’t hit what they’re aiming at. Genius investigators who miss obvious clues. High school students who talk and act like 35-year-old investment bankers. If you’re not very, very careful, these are the characters who get books and screenplays tossed in the big left-hand pile.

Take it seriously-- So, everyone makes a joke now and then to break the tension. But you should never be winking at the audience. Even if you’re doing camp or comedy, you need to be approaching your material as a sincere and honest effort on your own part. If you’re not, the reader will know and they won’t take you seriously. Not being taken seriously gets your manuscript put down in the left hand pile. After all, if the reader thinks the events in your writing don’t mean all that much to you, why should they care about them?

Eight tips for all of us to follow. Especially you. Yeah, you.

Next week’s little rant comes with an important message, so please be here.

Until then, go write.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

It's A Small World After All...

We’re fostering a couple kittens right now that we rescued from the alley alongside our building. They were Mathilda and Charlie Baltimore for a while, then they hit puberty, certain things developed, and we realized Greystoke and Tarzan might be better names. Then it was Gandalf and Sauroman. We’ve finally settled on Loud Howard and Charlie Gibson.

Bonus points if you know where all those names come from.

The downside is, we ended up with fleas in our apartment. Every time I thought we wiped them out a new wave surged up. I got bit at least once a day. They’re just tiny, annoying things. No one likes a flea.

No, not even the people who run flea circuses. Those things are all fake, anyway.

Do any of you even know what a flea circus is or am I just dating myself again?

Hey, look! The Flea!

Anyway, the thing is, my beloved is reading for a contest right now, and the flea problem made her come up with an analogy. She’d just finished her latest pile, which included (among others) a big cosmic-level story about universe-threatening monsters or something like that and also a more “indy” story about a character who sat and really did nothing while interesting things happened all around her. As my lady love put it, they were stories that focused on the flea on the back of the dog who was chasing the car that the bank robbers were escaping in from their heist.

Let me put it simpler terms. Who’s writing a story set in the modern-day, 2010 United States?

Okay, now how many of you are writing about the health care crisis? The bill passed but there are still arguments and debates and questions and the earliest bits of it won’t begin until next year. It’s a huge issue that affect everyone in this country on one level or another.

Which means it’s affecting your characters. So, who put it in their story? Anyone?



I’m going to go out on a limb and guess not many of you. I’ll step a bit further out and presume you didn’t include it because it wasn’t really relevant to the story you were trying to tell. Which is also why you probably didn’t include a lot about either the war on terror or climate change.

Does the flea have an effect on the bank robbers? Do the bank robbers have an effect on the flea? No, don’t talk to me about the butterfly effect or interconnectedness or any of that nonsense. They’re yes or no question, and if you’re going to be a halfway decent writer you have to be honest about answering them

The point I’m trying to make is that you have to know which story you’re telling. Am I telling the story of the flea, or the story of the bank robbers? Because there does come a point, by sheer sense of scale, that they’re not the same story anymore. In the same way health care or global warming are just too big to have them “casually” in my writing, odds are this phenomenal bank heist is way beyond the life of the flea.

In my experience, this issue comes up a lot in little “art” stories. Writers try to bring in big, complex issues to make their story more “real” and give it “scope” (d’you notice how many of these things I have to keep putting in quotes?). Alas, since the story is really about some introspective naval-gazing these issues are more a distraction that anything else. All they’re doing is wasting words that could be used for better things. This is the story of the flea where someone tries to keep talking about the bank robbery.

This is also why a lot of epic stories tend to fail, just coming at it from the other side. When a writer is focused on creating the most cosmic-level story they can, they generally don’t give the reader anyone to relate to, just people to be in awe of. A story needs a character to be our entry point, and world-changing, epic stories that overwhelm said character are just too big. It’s the story of the bank heist and the audience has all become fleas. One film critic (whose name, I hate to admit, escapes me at the moment) made the clever observation a while back that stories like Star Wars and Lord of the Rings succeeded despite their epic stories, not because of them.

I was going to put some examples of this sort of thing, but the more I thought about it (and kept going over this little rant) the more I realized how hard that would be. This is really just one of those things you get or you don’t. If you’re reading this and think I’ve kind of wasted this week’s rant on the obvious, you probably get it. If you have no idea what I’m talking about, or you’re already composing an angry retort, odds are you don’t. It’s just one of those things that makes sense after processing a given amount of storytelling. I wish I could be clearer about it, but the best I can do is point you in the right direction and give you a rough idea of what you’re feeling around for. One day it’ll all just click. It did for me.

If a story’s going to be small and intimate, then keep it small and intimate. If it’s going to be big, remember to give all us regular folks a gateway into that big story or we’ll just get lost in it. Odds are a manuscript can’t handle being stretched between the two extremes, so writers need to be clear what their story is about.

Next time, I’m going to make things as easy as possible to get through.

Until then, go write.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

A Shock to the System

We all know this moment. It shows up in books and films.

Our heroine, Dot, descends into the darkened cellar with only a flickering flashlight to guide the way (or a torch, for our British readers). We hear a rustle of movement. Something gets knocked over behind her--a set of golf clubs. She pans to the light left and right, revealing so many places to hide. There’s definitely someone-or something-- down here in the cellar with her. There’s more movement, more noise, a few cries from Dot and then

--HAH --

the cat leaps into her arms from the top of a nearby cabinet or stack of old newspapers.

This, my friends, is what we commonly call a cheap shot. It’s when you wind up tension and expectations only to pay them off with a shock that turns out to be completely innocent. Granted sometimes it isn’t innocent because


the cat leaps away just as the psychopath dives out and runs Dot through with the umbrella from the golf bag. This is still a cheat, however, because the psychopath is just relying on shock value. All that built-up tension got paid off early with the cat and, well, the cat is not the payoff we were hoping for.

In certain activities, this sort of thing is called “premature”...

Cheap shots and shock gags are popular in stories for two reasons. One is because they’re hard to screw up. Put a racing crescendo in the soundtrack, add a racing heartbeat, splatter some gore, let rip with an off-color fart joke, and the audience almost has to react a certain way. That’s the second reason. You can practically guarantee the audience will respond how you want because they’re the lowest common denominator of emotional stimulation.

Now, let’s be clear on one thing. These little shocks are great, either in horror or action or comedy or whatever. Anything that gives the audience a little jolt out of their complacency is always good.

The problem is when that’s all a given story has to offer. A lot of stories try to get by with lots of cheap shots and shock gags because they don’t have anything else. The comedies aren’t that funny. The horror stories aren’t that scary.

There was a little horror movie I saw a while back where the suspected killer (or is he...?) had a habit of appearing from nowhere. Someone moves or the camera shifts and there he is. Walk into the office reading your mail, look up, and there he is. Open the medicine cabinet for an aspirin, close it, and behind you in the reflection there he is. Have a talk with your friend about stress, say goodbye, turn around, and there he is. Go out to get something from the fridge at night, close the fridge door, and there he is.

Notice how the italics are getting boring? That’s shock value wearing out its welcome. It’s breaking the flow again and again by reminding you this is a constructed story trying to play on your emotions. At the screening for this particular movie, I realized halfway through that the other critics and I were all doing the same thing. We were conducting the film with our fingers, cueing the suspected killer’s appearances because they’d become so predictable.

Consider, if you will, the lesson of Monty Python.

For those pathetic few of you who don’t know, Monty Python was the name of a British comedy troupe back in the ‘70s. John Cleese was a founding member. So was writer-director Terry Gilliam. There’s probably a few other faces in there you’d recognize, but I didn’t really want to talk about them.

The whole point of Monty Python was to do off-beat, nonsensical comedy. It was absurdist humor taken to the extreme, with people arguing about book stores, dead parrots, and even arguing about arguments. Unexpectedly, Monty Python became a huge hit. Their show ran for several seasons. The group did international tours. They made a couple of movies.

And they became predictable.

People started taking about jokes and skits being “Pythonesque.” It was hard to be nonsensical when people were expecting nonsense. The absurdity became standard. And right about this time Monty Python started to be a little less funny. Then a lot less funny. And then they more or less broke up.

If you don’t want to think poorly on the Pythons, consider slasher films. They dominated the ‘80s because it was easy to shock audiences with more gruesome and gory deaths. Eventually, though, slasher films almost became another form of comedy. People were laughing at them more than cringing because they’d become bored by the constant cycle of extreme death. It’s just like what I mentioned a while back about endings that come out of left-field. They become so commonplace in bad indie films that people just expect them now. They lost what shock value they once had.

Again, as I said above, there’s nothing wrong with a shock or a cheap shot now and then. Shocks and surprises are good. We all enjoy them.


You need to have more than that, though, if you want to really connect with your audience. There needs to be real tension. Real suspense. Real payoffs.

Yeah, it’s tough and, yeah, some readers simply are not capable of understanding foreshadowing and suspense. A real uphill battle. So you need to decide if you’re going to aim high or if you’re going to go for the lowest common denominator.

Because you can only be premature so many times before other folks start getting frustrated with you.

And then you’re going to find yourself all alone.

Next time, I need to talk about the developing flea problem.

Until then, go write.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Now THAT'S Comedy

Bonus points if you know this week’s historical pop-culture reference.

We’ve all got our own ideas for what’s funny. Mine may not match up with yours and yours may not match up with hers. I loved (500) Days of Summer, but I also love Super Troopers and reading some of Woody Allen’s old essays. On the flipside, I was never that impressed by the Wayans Brothers movies, Beavis & Butthead, or the Three Stooges. Yeah, I don’t know why, but the Stooges just never did it for me. Maybe I got a bad first impression somewhere along the way or something.

Comedy’s a tough thing to define or give lessons on because of this. A few noted funny people have pointed out this little truth-- tragedy is when I stub my toe; comedy is when you fall down a hole and die. Several pros say it’s one of the hardest things to pull off. As such, it’s good to be highly skeptical of anyone offering you simple rules and guidelines on how to be funny, because odds are they’re either a scam artist trying to make a buck off you or some idiot rookie who doesn’t know anything.

So, that being said, here are a few rules and guidelines on how to be funny. Please don’t forget to shop the great Amazon links to the right and down below once you’re done reading them.

That made you chuckle, didn’t it? I knew it would, but I couldn’t really tell you how I knew. I’m sure I could write out a few long paragraphs about comic theory and contradictory information and a bunch of other useless stuff that wouldn’t really tell you anything but earned some guy tenure somewhere.

That would be a bit pointless, though, wouldn’t it? I don’t want to write it out, you don’t want to slog through it.

Let’s see if I can give you something a bit more solid to work with.

A quick story...

Who remembers Captain Kangaroo? I grew up on the show. And, awful as Bob Keeshan would find it, one of my firmest memories of Captain Kangaroo was abject terror.

I can’t remember all the details, but there was a Captain Kangaroo special that had the Captain and his friends out of the studio and off on some adventure. There was a story, a mystery, the whole deal. I want to say it was set in Australia for some reason. Anyway, during the course of it, Captain Kangaroo gets sealed in a big oil drum and placed on the back of a truck. Said oil drum bounces off the truck and begins to roll down the largest hill in the world (it may have been Mt. Kilimanjaro, a well-known Australian landmark). Every few moments it would hit a rock or bounce over something and the Captain would let out another pitiful wail or cry for help. After what seemed like about nineteen and a half hours, the oil drum came to rest at the bottom of the hill and his friends pulled the unharmed-but-dizzy Captain Kangaroo free to wobble around on shaky legs.

Horrifying. Thirty five years later and I can still hear his screams echoing inside that drum.

Why was it horrifying, though? I mean, the same kind of gag happened on Scooby-Doo on a pretty regular basis. Abbot and Costello did it once, if memory serves. I’ve seen it on The Simpsons a few times since then, too. Granted, I was a timid little kid, but what about this particular instance made it so scary?

The catch (and the focus of this week’s little rant) is the setting.

Television has the term “situational comedy” better known as a sitcom. It’s the idea that these people in this setting will be funny. Truth is, though, all comedy is situational. It depends on the audience and it depends on the setting. There are jokes I’d tell my friends that I wouldn’t tell my parents. It’s funny when Kenny from South Park falls in a microwave and dies, but it’s a bit cringe-inducing in Kick-Ass. And while it’s laughable when Shaggy and Scooby get rolled away in an oil drum, it’s nightmarish when the same thing happens to Captain Kangaroo.

(insert long, uncomfortable silence here)

Y’see, Timmy, certain types of comedy work in certain types of stories. Once you’ve established the tone of the story you’re telling, you’ve also established what kinds of comedy will work with it. You can’t swap jokes back and forth between different material with no problem. If I try to lift a gag from The Office and drop it into Ferris Bueller’s Day Off or maybe one of Eddie Izzard’s routines, it’s not going to work. On a similar note, you can’t swap funny characters back and forth, either. A writer can’t just add in a bit with a dog or a fart gag and expect that their story is funny now. Granted, Hollywood’s determined to prove me wrong on this, but so far the evidence is stacked in my favor.

In my opinion, this is one of the big tricks to being funny, and also the reason most attempts at comedy fail. Writers set up one type of world and then pepper it with a different style of humor that clashes with that world. It’s mismatched ideas and tone.

Okay, I know I said I wouldn’t talk about comic theory, but let me dip my toes in it just for a moment...

Comedy needs to be believable, by which I mean within the context of the given world or story. Just like a good mystery or most genre stories, the audience has to believe in the situation and the characters--again, within this context-- in order to relate to it. Something unbelievable isn’t funny. It’s just odd and it usually gets a very different response then what was intended.

This is when “humorous” bits become aggravating or disgusting or even terrifying. They’re alien forms of comedy for the established world, so they aren’t seen as comedy. A slapstick gag is awkward and out of place in a serious dramatic story. Likewise, a touch of wry, understated British humor isn’t going to go over well in an episode of Jackass.

Which is also what happened to poor Captain Kangaroo. He existed in a world of storytime, simple lessons about friendship, and Mr. Greenjeans stopping by to visit. It was a world where the biggest threat he had to deal with is getting a shower of ping-pong balls. When he suddenly gets stuffed in a BP oil drum and rolled down Mt. Kilimanjaro, that’s breaking the rules of that world. It’s not supposed to happen and so it isn’t funny--it’s just a pleasant, grandfatherly man being subjected to a horrific experience.

Know what type of story you’re writing and make sure the tone and type of jokes match the world you’ve set up. I’m not saying following this rule makes all writing funny. I do, however, feel safe saying that not following it will stack the odds against a story. Consider it more a rule of thumb that you’re probably safer going along with than not.

(insert second long, uncomfortable silence here)

(wait for laughs)

(even longer silence)

Next time, I’d like to introduce you to my cat, Cheap Shot.

Until then, go write.