Thursday, December 29, 2011

Let's Review

            Just enough time and space left in 2011 for me to squeeze in one last ranty blog post.
            This was a big year for me.  For the first time in my life, I spent the entire year writing fiction.  I’ve spent over five years as a full-time writer, but a lot of those years were writing magazine articles as well as my own stuff.  This was the first year of nothing but my fiction and living (well, squeaking by) on the money I made off that.
            Which also meant this was the first year I had no schedule.  I had a few broad deadlines for projects, but even most of those had a 30 day buffer built into the contract.  So anything I got done this year—or didn’t get done—was all my responsibility.  If I didn’t do it, it wouldn’t get done.
            How did I do with all the extra pressure of living the dream life?

            --I started the year by finishing up the last draft of Ex-Patriots, which hopefully two or three of you have since picked up and enjoyed.
            --Then I wrote The Junkie Quatrain as part of a bonus material deal with  Four interlocking/ overlapping short stories that form a pretty solid-sized novella (about 37,000 words) in six weeks.  I was pretty darned proud of that.  It reminded me of tales about Ray Bradbury and Robert Lewis Stevenson writing stories specifically to pay rent.  Permuted Press is putting out The Junkie Quatrain as an ebook next month (shameless plug), and I think is going to release them as a collected piece as well.
            --I wrote -14-, which was a whopping 149,000+ words in the first draft.  It went through five more drafts that cut a lot and added some more.  The 129,000 word manuscript is under the keen eyes of the Permuted editor right now.
            --I did about a dozen DVD reviews for the Cinema Blend website.  I wanted to do more, actually, but they’re shifting over to Blu-Rays and I haven’t gotten around to picking up a Blu-Ray player yet.  Maybe for my birthday...
            --I wrote forty-eight entries for the ranty blog (counting this one).  There’s also a half dozen on the H.P. Legocraft site and another nineteen entries on another blog I do.  Plus a few lengthy diatribes on the Permuted Press message boards and the Facebook fan page I’ve got going.
            --At the moment I’m 20,000 word into Ex-Communication, the third Ex- book.  To be honest I’d hoped to be a lot further along at this point, but then there were holidays and traveling and this monster eggnog my brother makes with lighter fluid...
            --And as soon as I finish this post I’m going to try to grind out a superhero story for an upcoming anthology called Corrupts Absolutely.  It’s due by December 31st, so we’ll see how I do.

            So, that's what I wrote this year. 
            How about you?
            Yeah, I had the advantage of writing fiction full time as my day job.  I’m guessing most of you didn’t have that.  Still, you’ve written something, right?
            Hopefully the answer is yes.  If it isn’t, here’s a simple New Year’s resolution, one I suggest every year about this time.
            Write a page a day.  That's all.  Tell yourself you’re going to do that and stick to it.  It’s about three hundred words, depending on your formatting. 
            If you write one page a day, you can have a short story by the end of January.  You could have a screenplay by the end of April, giving you plenty of time to enter some of the big contests.  Next Christmas you could have a very solid novel on your computer.  All from writing just one page a day. 
            If you're actually serious about being a writer, this should be the equivalent of resolving to sleep in the months to come.  Not sleep more or sleep better.  Just to sleep.  In other words, it should be something you couldn’t stop yourself from doing if you wanted to.
            Happy New Year to the double-handful of you who keep stopping by to read this.  Next time will be the first post of 2012, so I thought I'd do a quick recap about the history of the ranty blog and why I keep scribbling here once a week for several years now.
            Until then, go drink some champagne, kiss someone you love, and toast the new year.
            Then go write. 
            Just write one page.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Wherefore Art Thou Romeo

            Pop culture reference, four hundred years late.  Plus, if you actually know how to read that title line, you’ve got a hint at what this week’s ranty blog is about.
            Sorry this is late, by the way.  Yesterday was early Christmas lunches with family and parties at night with friends.
            Speaking of which, one last push before Christmas—you can still order Kindle books as last minute gifts and my publisher has a ton of them on sale for dirt cheap prices, including my own Ex-Heroes.  You can also pick up the Kindle version of The Eerie Adventures of the Lycanthrope Robinson Crusoe for half off the paperback price.
            Now, with all that out of the way... let’s get back to our title subject.
            One thing I stumble on a lot in stories is names.  Sometimes writers will load up every single character in their manuscript with a proper name.  I read through and I know the given name of the cabbie, the waitress,  the office intern, the homeless guy at the freeway exit, the woman whose ahead of the main character in line at the grocery store.  It doesn’t matter how important—or unimportant—they are to the story, they get a name.
            Another thing that makes for a troublesome read is when there are lots of people with similar names.  Sometimes, if there are enough of them, it can just be the first letter of the name.  Believe it or not, I read two scripts this year by two different people, but each screenplay was loaded with names that began with the letter J.  There was Jason, Jackie, Jerry, Jonathan, Javarius, Jacob, Jenny, and even a Jesus.  I read one the year before where everyone’s name began with P.  Since names are the reader’s shorthand for characters, making them confusing is not a great way to go.
            What I’d like to do now is to suggest a simple rule of thumb that can eliminate both of these potential problems.  And I’d like to illustrate this rule of thumb with a popular character most of you probably know...
            Calvin and Hobbes was created by Bill Watterson back at the end of that ancient decade known as the ‘80s.  The glaciers had retreated, a few mammoths still wandered the plains, and I had just started college in western Massachusetts.  The two title characters were Calvin and his stuffed tiger, but after them the two people we saw the most were Calvin’s long-suffering mom and sometimes just-as-mischievous dad (no real question where Calvin got it from).  Their names, as any fan of the series knows, were Mom and Dad.
            No, seriously.  That was it.  Mom and Dad.  I challenge anyone here to find a single scrap of evidence from the decade or so of Calvin and Hobbes strips that shows these two characters have any names past that.
            There’s a simple explanation for why they didn’t.  The entire strip is done from Calvin’s point of view.  In his world, people randomly transmorgify into giant bugs or space aliens.  Dinosaurs are still common if you know where to look.  And those two adults in his house with the sagging poll numbers are just Mom and Dad.  Not “just” in the sense that they’re diminished somehow—they simply don’t have any identity past what Calvin’s given them.
            A character’s name should be what your main characters refer to them by.  If my main character doesn’t know their name (and never will) there’s probably not a reason for the reader to know it.  Calvin never thinks of his parents as anything other than Mom and Dad, so within the story of Calvin and Hobbes they never get names, just those simple titles. 
            It’s not just Calvin and Hobbes, of course.  There are a lot of examples where storytellers don’t name someone because it’s unrealistic for the main character(s) to know that name.  A few other well-known characters without names include...

--The little red-haired girl
--The alien bounty hunter from X-Files
--The other woman
--House’s cellmate
--The cute blonde waitress

            It didn’t lessen any of these characters to not have actual names.  If anything, you could probably make the case that some of them were more memorable because they didn’t have names—it added to their sense of mystery
            Consider it this way.  Stephen King’s novella “Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption” is about Red, Andy, and the other prisoners.  Because of this very few of the guards get named, even though there are dozens of them in the story.  They’re the outsiders.  But in King’s The Green Mile it’s the guards who are the focus of the story so most of the prisoners don’t get names, even though there are hundreds of them in the prison.
            Or, if you prefer, consider this.  If you’ve ever worked as a waiter or waitress, or ran the checkout counter at a store, how many of your customers could you name?  On the flipside, can you name the waiter from the last time you went out?  Or the clerk the last time you bought something?  They were probably even wearing a nametag, but I bet you can’t.  And the reason you can’t is because they weren’t important to your story. 
            While giving every character a name helps show how well-thought out the world is, in the long run it makes a story confusing.  If your main character doesn’t know who someone is, there’s nothing wrong with just calling them Man #3 or the other girl, and it usually makes for a much cleaner, easier read when you don’t have to info-dump half a dozen names on each page.
            Next time, I thought I’d do my annual sum-up of the year in writing.
            Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukah, and a general Happy Holidays to you all.
            Try not to take the whole week off from writing.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

He Wakes Up In a Bathtub Full of Ice And...

            Have you noticed the somewhat blatant examples of product placement on television shows lately?  Our heroes are on a stakeout, driving to a crime scene, or fleeing for their lives... and they suddenly stop talk about how cool their car is.  Heroes jumped that shark early on with their constant references to the Nissan Rogue, but as of late it seems like almost every show is doing it.  There was a truly awful example on House a few weeks back.
            For the record, I give CHUCK a pass on blatant product placement because the show completely embraces the idea of blatant product placement and, as such, blends it in a lot better than the others.  It pretty much made Subway cool by pointing out how ridiculously un-cool Subway is.
            One thing we’ve all seen is when a story veers off into unrelated, irrelevant material for a little while.  It’s as if the writer lost track of where their story was going and it just meandered away.  We’ve all heard people say "I let the characters guide me,” but if the characters are guiding the story off the page and into a different book, it’s probably time for the writer to pause for a moment and reassess things.
Violet, moments before her gruesome end.
            For example, remember in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (the book, not the movie) there’s the whole recurring bit about how the bad kids keep messing things up and putting their various parts where they’re not supposed to be.  Eventually little Violet Beauregarde chews some gum she shouldn’t and swells up into a giant blueberry.  The other guests are horrified, Wonka sighs in regret, and the Oompa-Loompas roll poor Violet away to a soundproofed room where the other guests can’t hear her screams or terror and agony as the little people gut the swollen girl and harvest her organs for the international black market ring that the candy factory is just a front for.
            You don’t remember that bit?
            It is a bit off from the rest of Dahl’s book, isn’t it?  Tonally speaking.  Probably why he didn’t include a scene like that.  If you do remember that scene... well, you should probably talk to someone.  Preferably someone who can prescribe medication
            The problem I’m talking about is telling a story that isn’t your story.  Sometimes, in the middle of a perfectly good tale, writers will steer off into... well, something else entirely.  Another few examples...
            If I’m doing a touching character piece, I shouldn’t have a ninja attack.
            A post-apocalyptic thriller probably should not have a song and dance number in the middle of it.
            If I’m writing a romantic comedy, no one should get kidnapped and harvested for their organs (a common theme to veer off into, apparently).
            In a pulse-pounding action story, no one should pause for a ten minute monologue about how horrible it was watching their mom get worn away by cancer.
            If you’ve been reading the ranty blog for a while, you probably remember a while back when I talked about the rules of love.  The fourth rule relates directly to this idea.  Sometimes a romantic element just doesn’t fit in a story.  Maybe the people are too different.  Perhaps there’s too many other things going on.  Maybe the current situation just doesn’t allow for those kind of thoughts.
            A lot of time when we see stuff like this, it’s a poor attempt to copy something else.  The writer’s seen an element work in another existing story and tried to transplant it into this story, regardless of whether or not it works.
            Speaking of black market organs, that’s a great analogy—transplants.  If any of your family or friends has ever needed blood, bone marrow, or maybe a kidney, you know it’s a big deal (and hopefully you’re all tagged as donors).  Even with blood, which is pretty easy these days, there’s a half-dozen or so tests that need to be run.  If it’s an actual organ transplant there’s a ton of factors that need to match up for it to be successful, and these factors need to be determined by a professional.  Even between close relatives there can be huge differences.  I can’t just toss kidneys from one person to another and assume they’re going to work, because if even one of those factors doesn’t match up, I’ll have two dead people on my hands.
            The same is true of stories, too.  Something that’s creepy in your book might not be creepy in my book.  Just because this joke worked when she said it doesn’t mean it’ll work when he says it.  This story may have ended with the young couple together, but it doesn’t mean mine can do it.  If I just pull elements from one story and stick them in another, there’s a better chance I’ll kill the story than save it.  I need to do cross-checking and make sure all the factors line up before I do a transplant.
            What are the important factors?  Well, a big one is whether or not the patient actually needs a transplant or not.  Is there a reason to bring in this odd element?  Does it contribute to my story in one way or another?
            Past that, it depends on what’s being transplanted, and also from what into what.  Each one’s going to be different.  A joke or a clever description might not need much alteration, but pulling over a major subplot or character could take lots of work to both the element and the story it’s going into.  That’s part of the job of being a writer—knowing what works, what doesn’t, and what I need to do to bridge the gap.
            More to the point, it’s my job to tell the story I’m telling.  I shouldn’t be trying to tell my sci-fi story with a bit of Stephanie Meyer tween romance twisted in.  I shouldn’t be writing my dramatic screenplay but with that fun scene from Captain America wedged into it.  And it’s a bit silly to stick a cute dog in my horror short story just because all the Tintin books have one. 
            Know your story and write your story.  Don’t worry about that other story.
            Next time, I’d like to babble on about a great lesson you can learn from the parents in Calvin & Hobbes.
            Until then, go write.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Counting the Minutes

            It’s Christmastime.  Of course we’re all counting the minutes.
            I’m also counting the minutes until John Carter comes out, but that’s another story entirely.
            You know who else counts minutes?  Script supervisors.  It’s one of those credits you see in film and television that a lot of non-industry people don’t really know what it means.
            Very simply put, the script supervisor (often called the scripty)  keeps track of things.  He or she’s the one who notes exactly what’s been filmed (what shots and sizes and angles and lines) from each scene.  Like lots of other key folks on set, the script supervisor does their own breakdown of the script.  And the scripty’s breakdown is all about time.
            The standard estimate for a screenplay is a page a minute  If you talk to most script supervisors, they’ll tell you it’s actually closer to fifty-odd seconds (I want to say fifty-three), but a page a minute is a solid estimate.  There’s always going to be some wiggle room, of course, especially when you’re dealing with action.  As I’ve mentioned here before, the lobby scene in The Matrix is less than half a page.  According to Hollywood legend, the chariot race in Ben Hur was just one line in the script.
            This is why most professional readers groan when they get a screenplay that’s 140 or 150 pages long.  That’s two and a half hours.  Any script that long has a major strike against it before the reader’s looked at page one.  I read two scripts this year that the writer had “squashed” to make them shorter, but I could tell they were both over 200 pages, easy.  That’s close to three and a half hours.  Possibly even more if they’d had action sequences in them.  Which they did.
            If you’re a screenwriter, look at your script.  If you’ve got a solid page of dialogue, that’s a minute of talking heads.  A minute is a brutally long time in a movie.
            Don’t believe me?  Try this.  Look up at the ceiling and count off ten Mississippis.  Don’t cheat, don’t rush... just look up and count them out in your head nice and steady like you’re supposed to.  Go on.  I’ll wait.

            That was ten seconds.  Oscar-winning screenwriter Bruce Joel Rubin pointed out once that ten seconds can be an eternity on screen. 
            So think about how long some of those character monologues are.  It may be brilliant on the page, but there’s a good chance it’ll be torturous to watch.  It’s important to understand the distinction between how long something takes on the page and how long these actions and conversations will actually need (or not need).
            This goes for prose writers too (just so you don’t feel left out).  I’ve mentioned the pacing issues that can happen if action gets stretched out too long.  Certain things happen at certain speeds, and if they get slowed down with dialogue, descriptions, or excessive action they’re just going to look silly.  Not in the good way.
            And when something reads silly, people put your manuscript down in the big pile on the left.
            Next time, I wanted to tell you a story about telling you a different story.
            Until then, go write.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Simon Says, One Step Back

            Okay, first off... more shameless pandering.
            My publisher’s doing a big sale for the holidays he’s calling Black December.  The ebook versions of ten best sellers and new releases are marked down to a mere $2.99 for the whole month.  That includes my own Ex-Heroes, available over in the right hand column here.  He’s also got five ebooks for free.  No strings, no tricks, absolutely free.  Five books he’s just giving away.  Go check it out.
            Oh, and The Eerie Adventures of the Lycanthrope Robinson Crusoe isn’t part of the sale, but the ebook version's still marked down to half the paperback price.  Just saying...
            Now, with that out of the way, I’d like to talk to you about Pitch Black.
            If you haven’t seen the film, I highly recommend it.  Sharp dialogue, good characters, a lot of action, and a damned clever story backing it all up.  It’s the movie that really launched Vin Diesel’s career as “the guy you do not mess with,” and if you watch it with the commentary you’ll learn he also had a fair amount to do with shaping the script.
            There’s a wonderful bit early on when our assembled heroes need to make a break across a stretch of open ground.  As it turns out, Diesel’s character, Riddick, has superhuman vision and can see in the dark.  He peers out, announces it “Looks clear,” and the group of survivors dashes for cover.  But then things come soaring down out of the dark sky and... well, not everyone makes it.  One of the other survivors immediately blames Riddick—“You said it was clear!”
            “I said it looked clear!” Riddick snaps back.
            This bit usually gets a dark chuckle from the audience.  It also points out something I’ve mentioned here once or thrice before, and I thought it was worth blabbing on about in a bit more detail this week.  As our heroes learned the hard way, “It looks clear” is not the same thing as, “It is clear.”  Riddick knew they’re not synonymous, and that difference is very important.  "It looks clear" implies there's a bit more to be said.
            This is a construction I see come up a lot, where writers put an additional step between the story and the reader.  Usually they do it by adding an extra layer of verbiage that relates to something internal.  Other times it’s an attempt to do something clever with the description.  It seems to show up a lot in high fantasy writing because people mistakenly use it in the elaborate, purple-prose descriptions that genre tends to attract.  I’ve also seen people follow this route when they’re trying to be mysterious and imply a lot of spookiness that might not actually be there.
            And, to be honest, it’s something I used to do a lot myself.
            Let me give you a few examples...
            He thought about trying to be a writer
            We’ve all seen this one somewhere, right?  Nothing wrong with it on the surface.  But let’s stop and break it down for a moment.
            The act of thinking implies this isn’t happening, it’s just a possibility.  So if my character’s thinking about trying to do something, it means this is a possibility of a possibility of something happening.  Unless he’s specifically thinking about the actual attempt instead of the end product, this is just excess words.
            He thought about being a writer.
            See?  Cleaner, clearer, and two words shorter.  Here’s another one.
            She decided to write her blog post.
            This is fine if she decided to—but that was as far as she got because something kept her from doing it.  But if she decided to do it and then she did it, the writer’s just eating up words again. We all make hundreds of decisions and choices every day, but most readers want to hear about the actions, not the decision to take an action.  I wouldn’t write Peter decided to make a turkey sandwich, made the sandwich, and then chose to sit at the table to eat it. Well, I wouldn’t write stuff like that any more, at least.  Why would I want to waste all those words on mundane stuff?  Peter made a turkey sandwich and sat at the table to eat it.  Likewise, the sheer act of writing tells us our lovely blogger made a decision.
            She wrote her blog post.
            See?  Nothing else needed.  Now check out this one...
            Phoebe appeared to be a shapely blonde who stood six feet tall.
            Appeared to be is one of those phrases I got in my head and used to use all the time.  Sometimes I’d swap in one of its kissing cousins, looked like, seemed to be , and a few wild combinations we shouldn’t discuss in polite company.  Problem was, I didn't understand these phrases.  Y’see, Timmy, they don’t get used alone.  This sort of phrase is the first part of a construction where the second half is either an actual or implied contradiction.  That sentence up above is really saying something more like this—
            Phoebe appeared to be a shapely blonde who stood six feet tall, but she actually bleached her hair on a regular basis and made a point of always wearing spike heels.
            There’s nothing wrong with that sentence, of course, whether it’s written out or left implied.  None of us will fault Phoebe for thinking that blondes have more fun and wanting to be a few inches taller.  The problem is that a lot of the time I wasn’t trying to establish a contradiction, I just wanted artsy sentence structure.  What I really wanted to say was this--
            Phoebe was a shapely blonde who stood six feet tall.
            So I was subtly pushing the reader back for no reason with extra words, while also showing that I didn’t really know what I was doing.  If a writer isn’t trying to establish that contradiction, using appeared to be and its bastard stepchildren isn't just wasted words-- it's wrong. 
            Now, there’s nothing wrong with an elaborate sentence now and then.  Most of us love a good turn of phrase—it’s the kind of thing that made us want to be writers.  Just remember that like any other element in your writing, there has to be a point to that long string of words, and they have to be used correctly. Because if they’re not, I’m just eating up words and wasting everyone’s time.
            Speaking of which, next time I was going to rant about something for about a minute.
            Until then, go write.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Our THREE Secret Weapons Are...

            Pop culture reference.  Overdue.
            Okay, so what I wanted to blather on about today has its roots in screenwriting, but it’s a lesson that can get applied to short stories and novels as well. Simply put, it has to do with boring your readers.
            Some of you may have heard of the "rule of three."  It's  a good screenwriting rule of thumb that you should never do something more than three times in a movie because it starts wearing on the audience.  By the third time you’re showing me something, I’ve either got it or I don’t.  And if I don’t, it’s not my fault...
            For example, in the movie Iron Man we see three big examples of Tony Stark’s playboy lifestyle before something happens to make him change (blowing off the award ceremony, sleeping with the hot reporter, and partying on his private jet).  He then goes on to design three versions of the Iron Man armor, which also involves taking three test flights (one of them very, very short).  While all this is going on, we get three examples of what a great guy Obadiah Stane is, three of what an evil jerk he is, and the ever-loveable Agent Coulson asks three times about debriefing Tony and we get three jokes about the overly-long name of his government division before the payoff most comic geeks saw coming. 
            Seriously, pick up almost any movie you like and you'll be stunned how quick the threes add up.  The Hulk goes on three rampages in his last movie.  In Highlander we see three other immortals die before the final battle.  In Aliens there are three major attacks and three examples of Burke being a slimebag.  In the movie Severance, the bear trap slams shut three times (and if you haven’t seen it, I’m not explaining that any further).  In Casablanca, Victor and Ilsa ask for the letters of transit three times.  Heck, in The Princess Bride, how many challenges does the Man in Black have to overcome to claim Buttercup (I’ll give you a hint—Inigo, Fezzik, Vincini)?  And there are three great swordfights in that film—all involving Inigo.
            Now I’m sure some folks reading this are thinking three’s just an arbitrary number, right?  It could be the rule of two or the rule of four.  That’s very true, and you can find some examples of both.  In Charlotte’s Web, for example, the children’s classic by E.B. White (he of the awful style guide), there are four words that get spun into webs and none of us were screaming “get on with it” when our parents read that book to us.
           In a script I just read, though, there were over a dozen examples of how low the single-dad main character had sunk.  It starts with him late for work (as a waiter—historically a job of high pay and great respect) where he had a party dine-and-dash so he has to cover their bill.  Then his car breaks down and he has to walk home in the rain.  Then he gets a collections notice. Then he has to go grocery shopping and doesn’t have enough money.  Then the babysitter demands more money because he’s late again.  Then his power gets shut off.  Then another party dines-and-dashes on him and he gets fired.  Then he gets an eviction notice.  Keep in mind, this is only the first twenty pages of the script or so, and there’s still more examples coming.
            At what point did you get the idea this guy’s at rock-bottom?  Halfway through that list?  A third?  Check which note you got it on and count backwards.  Was it on the third example?
            I bet it was...
            Here’s the thing.  Each time we get exposed to information or events, it changes our understanding of them.  And a writer needs to be aware of how the reader is going to be seeing these facts or events.
            The first time we get exposed to a piece of information—and only the first time—it’s something new.  We, as the audience, didn’t know this or haven’t seen it before.  Agent Coulson’s introduced as yet another guy who needs to schedule a meeting about Tony escaping from Gulimar.  We brush him off the same way Pepper does (well, those folks do who don’t recognize the initials of his agency).
            The second time we see this happen, on the page or on screen, it establishes a pattern.  Now we know the first time wasn’t an isolated event or a fluke, and it gives us a little more information about things and characters.  Coulson shows up again and hasn’t forgotten about this meeting and he isn’t going away.  There’s also the unspoken question of how did some low-end, government flunky get into this extremely high-end exclusive party.
            The third time confirms that pattern.  These behaviors or incidents are a definite element of the character or story.  Coulson shows up to remind Pepper of his loosely-scheduled appointment and she grabs him to use as a shield against Obadiah.
            When I start going past this point, things start becoming less informative and more... well, boring.  Once the information’s been established, continuing to repeat it is just noise the reader’s going to tune out.  And eventually—quickly, really—they’re going to get annoyed that I’m just repeating stuff they already know rather than moving forward, because storytelling is all about forward motion.
            Now, as I said above, there are always exceptions to the rule of three.  One of the easiest ways is when a writer is very subtle about something and the reader doesn’t realize they’ve gotten that first exposure.  They may be on their third or fourth before they notice it, so the pattern forms around the fifth or sixth time—and is all the cooler when they look back and realize the pattern was there all along.  When we finally notice the Observer on Fringe, we discover he’s been there all along, in every episode.  Another good example is Jason Hornsby’s Eleven Twenty-Three, where a town is suffering from brief outbreaks of extreme violence. It happens twice before the characters realize the outbreaks always occur exactly at the titular time, and then they suffer through three more of them before the end of the book.
            On the flipside, there are times we only need to see something once or twice to establish them.  This works best for real-world things that most people can relate to.  Neo only gets chewed out once by his boss, at the beginning of The Matrix, and we all immediately realize what kind of employee he is.  In Dean Koontz’s underappreciated Fear Nothing, we only need to see one of Christopher’s parents die to understand his sadness and loneliness.
             You can also change the dynamic.  Establishing something with the rule of three doesn’t mean you’re stuck with it.  One of the standards of good storytelling is conflict that forces things to change.  Once we’ve seen three examples telling us who  this character is, it’s a good time to start working that arc to change them into something else.  Yes, that third time asking about the appointment makes Coulson look like the ultimate paper-pusher, but right after that point we discover just how calm and collected he really is.  This is a guy who doesn't just have a sidearm, he carries around shaped explosives just in case he needs to open a locked door.
            Look back over some of your writing and see how many times you give examples of something.  Character traits, recurring events, whatever.  Could some of them go away to tighten your novel or give you more space in that script for something else?  Or can you restructure things to hit one of the exceptions I mentioned above (three exceptions, for those of you keeping score).
            Next time, I wanted to take a step back and explain why you should avoid taking a step back in your writing.
            Until then, go write.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Tone Deaf

           So, I wanted to talk to you a bit about G.I. Joe.
           Not the cool cartoon, mind you.  Or the toy line.  No, I’m talking about the completely God-awful, live-action movie.  It had problems.  Lots of problems.  Not the least of which was a  complete failure to remember sixth-grade science class.
            The big issue I’d like to address, though, is the weight.
            Doc Brown and his assistant Marty taught us that some things are heavy.  They have weight.  They have, if I may use a literary term (sorry), gravitas—a certain dignity and importance and bearing.
            Stephen King, on the other hand, taught us that some things are soft and squishy and bleed a lot when you shove knives or claws or fangs into them.
            And let’s not forget the Wachowski Brothers, who taught us that some things get shot.  A lot.  In slow motion.  While doing kung-fu.
            What do all these things have in common?  And what do they have to do with weight?
            Well, let’s think about it.  Doc Brown and Marty didn’t think everything was heavy, just a few key revelations that came to them across three movies.  Stephen King doesn’t kill everyone in his stories—all in all characters in his books have a pretty decent survival rate (The Stand notwithstanding).  The Wachowski Brothers might have pioneered “bullet time” and virtual camera array shots in film, but there’s also a lot of stuff in The Matrix that follows basic camera set-ups—master, overs, coverage, done.
            And then there’s the G.I. Joe movie.  Which was cool.  Super cool.  Cool action, cool characters, cool lines of cool dialogue uttered coolly in cool situations.
            Saying cool that many times is kind of lame, isn’t it...?
            Anyway, keeping that in mind, I’d like to perform a simple experiment.  Please pay attention to the next paragraph.  Take notes if you feel it might help you recall things.
            So... what parts of that stood out to you?
            Odds are none of it did.  Well, maybe the fact that it ended.  In fact, you probably skimmed it, didn’t you?  Any sane person would’ve.  It was a bunch of LAs, that’s all.
            Here’s another example, one which will probably drive my point home.  Have you ever heard a tuning fork?  Have you ever felt compelled to listen to one for hours?  Tuning forks are perfect, y’know.  If you have a middle-C tuning fork, it will hit that note and hold it for ages.  Why wouldn’t you want to listen to constant perfection?
            Because it’s boring!
            A tuning fork plays one note.  That’s it.  It’s the musical equivalent of LA LA LA LA LA LA.  Middle C is great, and any musician will tell you it’s invaluable to performing almost any composition, from Ludwig Beethoven to Lady Gaga.  But it isn’t the only note.  It’s important because it’s part of a system of highs and lows that we call music.
            Stories work the same way.  A story that’s just all the same thing is the literary equivalent of a tuning fork.  It’s neat for about a minute and then it starts to wear on your nerves.
            Comical and serious.  Loud and quiet.  Horrific and reassuring.  Thrilling and mundane.  Failure and success.  If you look at any good story, you’ll see that it swings back and forth between extremes in a series of low troughs and high peaks.   
            Yeah, The Matrix had tons of kick-ass visuals and amazing action sequences.  It also had a scene of Neo getting berated by his boss, mocked by an old woman in a kitchen, and a lengthy discussion about the true nature of “Tasty Wheat.”  Some of these scenes were vitally important to the plot.  Others were just interesting character moments.  They all had different weight.
            This is what the creative folks behind G.I. Joe didn’t get.  You can’t have all cool lines and all cool action all the time in a story.  If everything is set to ten, it all has the same weight.  Another way of saying “all the same” is that it’s monotone.  And monotone is boring.  It’s boring whether it’s all set to three or five or ten or eleven.
            Y’see, Timmy, it’s the back-and-forth, up-and-down nature that makes for interesting stories.  A good story has a baseline that the reader can relate to.  It’s going to have pitfalls that sink below that baseline, and maybe some really tragic potential consequences.  And it’s going to have some parts that grab the reader’s attention, shoot high above the line, and make the heart start pumping.
            Because if it doesn’t have these back-and-forth elements, if it’s all the same, then it’s just a line.  It doesn’t matter how high the line is.  It’s just a flat line.
            And I’m sure most of you know what “flat line” is another term for...?
            Next time, I have three things I’d like to talk about.
            Until then, go write.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Changing It Up

            So, the back and forth thing really hasn’t gelled in my mind, so I’m taking the easy way out and just tossing up a quick tip.  A day late.
            Man, I’ve got to be honest.  The new Blogger is not working for me at all.  It’s such a radical change behind the scenes here.  It takes twice as long to do anything because they’ve needlessly spread everything out, and it’s just hard on the eyes.  Who thought orange on white was a good color scheme?
            I don’t know about you, but I tend to write in Times Roman, single-spaced.  It flows a little easier on my eyes.  It also lets me have more of the story there on the page in front of me.  It’s just my thing.
            Now, speaking of change (as we were), there comes a time when it has to go into the correct format for submissions—Courier 12, double-spaced.  And I don’t do this at the very end.  I do it at the start of my last or second to last draft.
            Changing it like this forces my eyes to look at it differently now. Unlike Times Roman, Courier is a proportional font—it uses the same amount of space for every letter, so an I on the page uses the same area as an M or a W.  You could actually lay out a Courier page on a grid and it would all line up.
             When I reformat my manuscript, all the words sit differently on the page now.  Their spatial relationships shift.  Lines don’t end in the same place.  Because of the spacing, the words themselves look different.  Check it out.

See how different these two lines look?
See how different these two lines look?

            What this means for me is that I’ve got a chance to look at my writing fresh.  Which means another chance to look at it with a critical eye.  Since I’m not being distracted (so to speak) by the familiarity of words and sentences that I’ve seen a dozen times, it lets me catch things that could be tightened up or are a bit repetitive.
            Even after a ton of slashing, I cut another two thousand words out of -14- after I switched formats.  So many things stood out now as excessive verbiage or unnecessary descriptors.  I’d made a good five passes at the manuscript at that point, but none of them really popped until I looked at it like this.
            So try changing things up and see if it helps your next round of editing.
            Next time, I should have this other post figured out.
            Until then, go write.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Blaming the Victim

            I’ve finally switched over to the new Blogger format.  A bit torn on it, myself.  Please let me know if you like it or not, because I can duplicate the old style, it just takes a bit of work. 
            Halloween is upon us, which means it’s time for me to do something horror-related here on the ranty blog.  It’s a topic I’ve touched on once or thrice before.  This time I thought I’d put a slightly different spin on it.
            As some of you know, I spent last weekend up at ZomBCon in Seattle.  It was eye-opening in several ways, and one of those ways (like any decent convention) was the people in costume.  There were a lot of fantastic zombies and related beasties, but there were also a lot of zombie fighters—people with miniguns and machetes and body armor.  Heck, one of my fellow Permuted Press authors, Eloise J. Knapp, showed up dressed to kill.  Not in the fun way.
            A lot of horror tends to focus on the enemy.  My zombies are different from your zombies.  Your vampires are different than my vampires.  Neither of our axe-wielding, demonically-possessed psychopaths are like her axe-wielding, demonically-possessed psychopath.  Horror can be broken down into many  different sub-genres, just like sci-fi, comedy, or other art forms like sculpting or painting.  Being labeled "horror" doesn't mean Frankenstein is anything like The Descent, and neither of them resembles Paranormal Activity VII.
            What I want to talk about, though, are the victims.  Different types of antagonists define a story, true, but the same holds for the protagonist.  While A vs. B makes one type of story, A vs. C is something different and D vs. G is another world altogether.  So recognizing what type of characters I’m writing about can help me define what kind of story I’m writing, which helps me market it.  If I tell an editor it's not torture porn when it plainly is, at the best I’m going to get rejected.  At the worst, they'll remember me as "that idiot" when my next piece of work crosses their desk—even if I’ve fixed my mistakes since then.
            Here’s a few types of horror stories and the people you often find in them.

Supernatural stories
            Not talking about the television show, mind you. 
            The characters tend to be average folks in most supernatural stories.  They’re not idiots, but they’re not millionaire Nobel winners or retired assassins. Almost universally, the main character of a supernatural story rarely comes to harm.  They’ll need clean underwear, maybe have to dye their hair back to its natural color, and they probably won’t sleep well for a few months or years.  Physically, however, they tend to come out okay.  There might be some mental scarring, but that’s about it.  If anyone suffers in a supernatural story it's usually the bad guy or a supporting character.  Often, though, people have died in the past.

Slasher stories
            These tales feature teenagers and young adults as their victim of choice.  Lots of teenagers, out of which two at most might survive.  A few people over the age of twenty-five may catch a machete, but ever since John Carpenter made the original Halloween (and it was horribly misunderstood and copied by dozens of filmmakers) it’s pretty much set in stone who the victims are in this sub-genre.
            A key difference between slashers and torture porn stories (see below) is that the victims here have a chance to escape.  It’s rare for the victim to die without hope or warning in a slasher film.  There’s often a chase or at least a struggle.  We get the sense that if Phoebe didn’t trip over that tree root or if Wakko hadn’t stopped to “deal with this guy” they might’ve gotten away.  Heck if Dot just could’ve run a little faster she would’ve made it to the car and relative safety.

Monster stories
            A monster story is about an unstoppable creature.  Godzilla is a monster, in a very obvious sense, but so is Freddy Kruger (in his later films), a zombie horde, and the alien in Alien.  I think the reason Jason X is so reviled by fans of the franchise is that the filmmakers turned it into a monster movie, not a slasher film like the ones before it.
            As such, the focus of a monster story is usually to get away from the threat.  Yeah, most horror movies involve running away.  In a monster story, though, it’s immediately self-evident this is the best choice of action.  Monster stories can have a lot of survivors because the monster, by its nature, is kind of attacking randomly.  It never gets personal for them.  The characters in a monster story are almost bystanders, swept up in the events and sometimes just left to watch from the sidelines.

Giant Evil stories
            In these stories the characters are usually pathetic pawns at best, helpless victims at worst (well, from their point of view).  Giant evil stories are close to monster stories in that the antagonistis just overwhelming.  There are two big differences, though.  One is there’s no way for characters to escape giant evil.  It’s everywhere.  Two is that giant evil rarely has a face.  It may have minions or manifestations, but often it isn’t something characters can “find,” if that makes sense.
            The characters in giant evil stories tend to be older and smarter.  They’re not hormone-crazed teens, but very educated adults with a bit of life-wisdom under their belts.  In my opinion, it’s because a large part of the horror here is realizing just how overwhelming the force against them is.  It’s something a younger character usually isn’t quite up to grasping because they don’t have as much of a world to overturn.

            Thrillers tend to focus on just one or two characters rather than a larger cast, so when people die they tend to be supporting characters or nameless folks in the background.  A thriller is about what could happen, not what does happen, so the big threats have to stay looming.  While characters in a thriller tend to be more active in a general sense, for the most part they’re reacting to the sinister plots and machinations going on around them.

Adventure Horror stories
            To paraphrase from Hellboy, adventure horror is where the good guys bump back.  While these stories may use a lot of tropes from the other subgenres, the key element to these stories is that the characters aren’t victims—they’re actively fighting back from the start.  Not in a dumb, facing-off-against-Jason-Voorhees-with-a-baseball-bat way, but in a heavily-armed-armored-and-prepared way that has a degree of success. 
            It can still go bad for them (and often does), but these characters get to inflict some damage and live to tell the tale.  For a while, anyway. 

Torture porn
            A key element to torture porn is the victim is almost always helpless.  By the time the characters know what’s going on (no matter how obvious it is to the reader) they’re already bound and drugged.  They’re completely alone or vastly outnumbered.  Unlike a slasher film (see above) there’s no question in these stories that the victim is not going to get away.  That hope isn't here, because that's not what these stories are about.
            Torture porn walks a delicate line with its characters.  If they’re bland and interchangeable, what happens to them is kind of meaningless.  When was the last time you shed a tear for that broken chair in your back alley?  However if we know these characters too well then their torture really does become truly unbearable and horrific to the point that it isn’t remotely entertaining.  We cheer when people get killed in the Saw movies, but not when they’re killed in Schindler’s List.

            I’ll also make the observation that characters tend to be one type or the other.  It’s very rare to see such a dramatic character shift that Phoebe goes from being the complete victim to completely kick-ass.  As has been said to death, the seeds are always there.  Ripley may not gear up until the end of Aliens, but there are plenty of reminders all through it that she’s just as capable and resilient as any of the Colonial Marines—including the fact that she’s the only survivor of the first movie.  When someone changes too much without any motivation they become inconsistent, and an inconsistent character’s a sure way to end up in that big pile on the left.
            So, dwell on these points while you're munching on the ill-gotten gains you score while trick-or-treating with your candy beard.  Yeah, all of you with kids, you know what I'm talking about.
            Next time, I’ve been going back and forth about what I want to do.  I might just give a random quick tip.  Or maybe I’ll talk about going back and forth.
            Have a Happy Halloween.  Don't forget to write.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

God is My Co-Writer

So, a few years back one of my friends read for a religious-themed screenplay contest. And, when it got to the point that he was pulling his hair out, I pitched in and read a few scripts for him (I owed him money, anyway). It exposed me to a lot of stories about God, Jesus, various members of the heavenly host, and—to be terribly honest—a lot of really bigoted, small-minded people. Not all of them, by a long shot, but enough that it’s worth mentioning, unfortunately.

Two weeks back I asked for ideas, and one fellow (stand up and wave, Matthew) suggested the idea of approaching God, or any god, in a story. How can you do it without annoying readers while still doing justice to your chosen almighty?

And then, by yet another odd coincidence, on one of my favorite message boards, a few of us were recently batting around the film The Adjustment Bureau, which, in the big picture, is about... well, guess.

First off, a few grammar and spelling points. If we’re talking about the Judeo-Christo-Islamic deity, it’s always God. Capital G. This also holds if you choose to call him the Lord. It doesn’t matter if you or your character are an atheist or agnostic or whatever—this isn’t a religious point, it’s just standard, accepted spelling. This deity is considered the definitive article and as such his (if I may be so presumptuous) name is always capitalized. It’s a proper noun. The same goes for the Bible. If you’re referring to the religious text that encompasses the old and new testament, it’s the Bible. You only use lower case when you’re speaking about a generic book of absolute fact, like if I tell you that Stephen King’s Danse Macabre is my bible.
And, really, if you’re going to write about Biblical-era tales, check out the MLA Handbook, because there are a bunch of unique grammar and spelling rules that apply to these names.

All of which leads to point two. I’m not talking specifically about God in this week’s rant, because a lot of the folks reading this are just as interested in Greek gods, Norse gods, Egyptian gods, Chinese demons, and cosmic entities from beyond time. But when it comes to stories, they all deal with a lot of the same issues.

Now, speaking of definitive articles, I’d like to start with an analogy...

In Danse Macabre, King tells a wonderful story about hearing William F. Nolan (the writer behind Logan’s Run and the legendary Trilogy of Terror films) talk at a convention. Nolan explained horror in terms of a closet at the end of the hall in a creepy, old house. Maybe the hero or heroine can hear something bumping around in there from anywhere in the house, and every now and then it thumps as whatever it is in there knocks an item off a hanger or tips a box off a shelf. As he or she gets closer, perhaps they can hear it scratching on the inside of the closet door. Endless scratching, scratching, scratching...

Finally, despite all our silent urgings, the character reaches out, turns the knob, and yanks open the door to reveal a ten-foot tall cockroach!!!

Thing is, even with the screams and the hissing and the mood music blaring, it’s kind of a relief to see that oversized bug. A ten-foot cockroach is pretty scary, no question about it, but a twenty-foot cockroach... man, I don’t know about you but that’d make me wet my pants pretty quick. It’s kind of a defense mechanism. Once I know what X is, I can imagine a scarier Y and X is reduced by comparison.

In the same way that naming the unknown horror lessens it, deities are lessened by defining them. When a writer tries to explain or show the scope of a god’s power, more often than not they’re really just establishing the god’s limits. If you tell me your god burns with the light of a hundred suns, I can say mine burns with the light of a thousand. If yours is a thousand feet tall and moves mountains, mine is ten-thousand feet tall and moves continents. The more the writer tries to show me, the easier it is for me to imagine something bigger and better (or nastier).

A great example of this is The Omen. No, the original. We shall not mention the remake here. Without giving away too much (although, why don’t you know this story already?), The Omen is about a diplomat who adopts a little boy. The boy, Damien, might be the Antichrist. I say “might” because... well, the movie actually makes you wonder. There are definitely people who think he’s the Antichrist. There sure are a lot of accidents and disturbing events that circle around the little boy. But the thing is... he never does anything. His eyes never glow, he never speaks in a deep, stentorian voice, he doesn’t shoot flames or lightning from his hands. Damien comes across as nigh-omnipotent because it seems completely effortless for him to get to anyone, anywhere—and that what makes him all the more terrifying. Because he doesn’t actively do anything, how’s anyone supposed to stop him? And what will happen when he does start being active?

Y’see, Timmy, defining something in any way automatically minimizes it, because the moment it’s been defined we can think of something bigger. Think of the little kid who yells, “infinity” and immediately gets countered with “infinity-plus-one!”

That’s why it’s always best to leave such omnipotent beings in the shadows rather than dragging them out into the light.  By their very nature, they're vast, undefinable beings.  Thus, the moment they get any sort of definition they're being lessened.

So, here’s a few quick thoughts for including a deity in your story.

Don’t—The simplest thing to do. Is a personal appearance really required for this story to work? The members of Congress have a big effect on my life, but I’ve never seen a single one of them in person. Heck, the only messages I’ve gotten from them have been spam emails and robocalls. But it doesn’t mean they aren’t there influencing aspects of my existence, and it doesn’t mean I wouldn’t be impressed if one of their aides gave me a call to chat about something. Which leads nicely to...

Minions—Gods of any type are impossible to fight, so including them on either side of the story equation really unbalances things. But I believe someone could beat cultists or demons or maybe even an angel. These are the beings my characters should be encountering. Remember, you can almost never get to the CEO because there’s a wall of flunkies, advisors, junior execs, and bodyguards in the way.

Silence is Golden—They used this one way back in It’s A Wonderful Life, when Clarence the angel would have one-sided conversations with the sky. Neil Gaiman did it in both The Sandman and the wonderful Good Omens (with Terry Prachett). Kevin Smith did it in Dogma. Mere mortals can’t hear the voice of God and expect to survive, so the Lord speaks through a number of mediums... or not at all. Keep in mind, to pull this off—especially the one sided conversation—your dialogue needs to be sharp and you can’t fall back on clumsy devices like repeating everything the silent person says just to make it clear what your god hates.

Comedy—People are a lot more willing to accept divine intervention (of one kind or another) if it has a comedy element. If I had to guess, I’d say it’s because when the writer’s not taking the matter seriously, it’s hard for people to have serious complaints. That’s why George Burns and Christopher Moore get away with mocking the man upstairs and The Last Temptation of Christ gets months of picketing. But this tone has to spread through your whole story. You can’t have your deity be the only source of comedy, because then you’re mocking him or her in the bad way.

Minimal Miracles—D’you ever hear the old saying about being so tough you don’t need to fight to prove it? More to the point, have you ever watched a movie where the bad-ass hero just fights and fights and fights and fights and fights? It gets boring, no matter how often he wins. Your omnipotent beings shouldn’t be expressing their power just to prove they can, because that power will start to get boring and take all the challenge out of the story one way or another. If everybody who dies gets brought back to life, what are people even fighting for?

Simply put... gods are the ultimate “less is more” when it comes to writing. The more a god—or demon, or cosmic entity—gets defined, the easier it is to name god-plus-one.

Next week... well, I’m going to miss next week. I’m one of the guests at ZomBCon up in Seattle. But when I come back, I’m sure I’ll have all sorts of scary and horrific things to talk about.

Until then, go write.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

This Should Be Obvious...

I’m a bit under the gun right now, so I don’t have time to rant on and on like I normally do. But I wanted to toss out something for this week.

The late Michael Crichton has a book called Travels which is more or less an autobiography of his early life. How he entered (and eventually left) medical school, selling his first few novels, and getting involved in the great, grinding machine of Hollywood. It’s a bit dry at points, but there’s some pretty interesting stuff in there. Including a fun story about how he once almost killed Sean Connery with a speeding train. Also how he and his girlfriend were molested by an elephant while camping in Africa.

If those last two sentences don’t make you want to buy that book, you have no real business being here.

For our purposes today, though, the important thing is a piece of writing advice young Michael got from his dad. If you want to know the full story behind it, again, grab the book. I’ll give you the short form.

Be very careful when you use the word obvious or its adverbial kissing cousin, obviously. It’s one of those words that should always get a second look in fiction, nonfiction, email, random message board posts, and so on.

If something isn’t obvious, it sounds arrogant to say it is. Think of all those times you’ve asked someone a question and they’ve answered you with “Isn’t it obvious?” If it was obvious we wouldn’t’ve asked the question (actual or implied). What the speaker or narrator is saying is, effectively, “I know I’m way smarter than you idiots and want to gloat about it.” So, if this is the situation, don’t use the word obvious, because the character or narrator in question is going to look like a jerk.

Unless, of course, the character saying so is supposed to be a jerk.

On the flipside, if something really is obvious, then you still don’t need the word. Things that are obvious are... well, obvious. The sky is blue. Sugar is sweet. Ninjas are cool. Expensive things cost money. Oxford is a good school. Nazis are bad. Colonel Hans Landa is very bad. Car crashes hurt, especially if you’re outside the car. All these things are, in fact, obvious to everyone, so it’s just wasted words for a writer to tell us so.

Try it. Use the “Find” feature to look for obvious or obviously in your latest manuscript and see how often you really need it.

Except for that one guy from Pod Six. He needs it. He’s a jerk.

Next time, by request and also by a series of conversations, let’s have a little talk about God and other gods.

Until then, go write.

Thursday, September 29, 2011


Evil villain laugh.

Hey, guess what I wanted to ramble on about this week?

No, not the new Ex-Patriots button the sidebar... (how's that for subtle?)

Villains! The bad guy (or gal). That character with the evil scheme that is pure genius in its simplicity.

First off, I want to make sure we’re all clear on something. There’s a difference between a villain and an antagonist (scary literary terms!).

While your villain is almost always your antagonist, they aren’t always. The first thing that pops to mind is the “lurking in the background” type villain who we know is there, but who never actually does anything. For example, the Emperor is definitely still one of the villains in Star Wars (the first movie had no subtitle, sorry George), but he’s hardly the antagonist. Likewise, it’s actually kind of common to have an antagonist who isn’t a villain. Two examples would be the Fugitive or the oft-maligned Lilo & Stitch. In both of these cases the antagonists are policemen who are 100% on the side of law and order.

I wanted to make that distinction because in this little rant I am going to be talking about villains. Antagonists are easy. In fact, too many people wuss out and have antagonists instead of villains, because creating a good villain is a lot harder than it looks.

Now, I’m going to start by bringing up a touchy subject. I hope everyone here realizes I’m doing it for instructive purposes and not to start any sort of debate. I apologize now if anyone gets offended, but... well, if discussing some of these things morally offends you, a career as a writer might not be for you.


I once read a screenplay about a morally conflicted woman who worked in an abortion clinic. She had very mixed feelings about her job and tried (somewhat) to see both sides of the argument. The screenwriter of this piece was pushing a message, though, and that message was pro-life/anti-abortion.

So... problem. It’s tough to do moral issues on screen in and of themselves. We need to see an actual conflict. An A vs. B situation. Our heroine is on the side of life, and thus is sane and rational and good, so where’s the conflict? What’s she going to struggle against?

The homicidal clinic staff.

That’s right, I said homicidal. As in... maniacs.

Every doctor twirled their mustache and laughed gleefully at the thought of getting to perform an abortion. They had pools going to see who could do the most in one day. When the main character convinces one patient to leave, the doctor actually snaps his fingers and says, “Ah, well... maybe next time.” The rest of the staff would blatantly lie to patients and trick them into signing “binding contracts” that forced them to go through with procedures.

Now, a lot of you who read this collection of rants know that I have a habit of being a bit verbose and pushing things. But the sad thing is, right now I’m not. I’m actually understating things a bit. The staff at this medical clinic was a bunch of ridiculously over-the-top caricatures of evil that made the staff at Auschwitz look like canonized saints.

This is a common problem in message scripts. Whether the message is pro-life, pro-environment, pro-religion, or pro-science, the writers often have trouble putting themselves in the other side’s shoes. If a writer zealously believes in any cause, to the point that nothing could sway their beliefs, it’s going to very difficult for them to empathize with anyone who has opposing views. How could you possibly have opposing views, after all? It’s SO CLEAR that I am right!

This is a problem, because empathy, as I’ve mentioned before, is what makes a good writer. You can always spot it when you’re reading a story by someone with little or no empathy for how other people feel and react. Being able to put yourself in different viewpoints is the key to great characters.
And guess what? Villains are characters. If handled correctly, they’re fantastic characters. Mess them up and... well, they’ll probably end up twirling their mustaches and saying, “Muah-ha-hah” a lot.

Because they’re characters, that means the bad guys can’t be illogical or fall back on madness as an excuse to explain their behavior. They need to have a real motivation for their actions. The best villains don’t scream and shriek and wave straight razors around. No, the best ones calmly and coldly ransom the life of everyone on your homeworld for a single piece of information.... and then blow up your homeworld anyway. And they do this because—in their minds—they have a perfectly logical reason for doing it. And because they're complete bastards.
Y’see, Timmy, a real villain is a person. You might not agree with them. You might not like them. But you should be able to make sense of why they do what they do.

In the movie Inglorius Basterds, Hans Landa is an absolutely terrifying Nazi officer. He isn’t scary because he shouts or has people killed. What makes him such an effective villain is that he’s completely rational. He makes a calm, solid case for why it makes perfect sense to hate Jews and want to kill them. And then he tops off this little exercise in logic by showing that he’s far smarter than anyone else present (including the audience) and has been guiding the conversation since the moment he entered the room. And that’s when we realize just how evil Landa is.

On the flipside, consider Tank Evans, the over-muscled penguin from the movie Surf’s Up. No, it’s actually fun, you should watch it. One of the problems the writers and actor Diedrich Bader struggled with was trying to make the villainous surfer believable and relatable. Their inspiration came when Bader’s son pointed out that Tank wasn’t the bad guy, he just loved all his trophies. Not only did it cement the character, but it gave them an all new scene (you’ll know it when you see it).

So, here’s my helpful hint for you. If a writer cannot put themselves in the villian’s place at all, don’t try to write them. If it’s completely impossible to empathize with what this character is thinking or to get a grasp on their line of reasoning—and to do it in a way that lets them remain believable—then this character shouldn’t be in the story.

That’s true of any character. So it should true for the villain, too, right?

Next time... y’know, I’m coming off a few intensive drafts and my brain’s a bit fried. Is there anything in particular someone would like addressed? I got a few calls last time I asked. Anything new pop to mind? If not, next week might just be me falling back on something obvious.

Until then, go write.