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.