Thursday, September 27, 2012

Fleshing Things Out

            That’s right.  Taking requests and playing the hits you ask for.
            Probably one of the most common thing writers hear is people asking about turning ideas into stories.  “Oh, I’ve got a really great idea, I just need someone to help me turn it into a book.”  I get messages like this four or five times a year.  When it’s from friends, I try to be really polite and explain why it doesn’t make much sense for me to help with their idea when I’ve already got far too many of my own to work on.  When it’s someone I don’t even know...
          I usually just ignore those messages. 
          Still, the unspoken question there is a valid one.  How do you go from clever idea to full-fledged book or screenplay?  How does a writer go from “bugs in amber have dinosaur DNA in their bellies” to Jurassic Park?
            Let’s talk about that.
            Now, as usual, nothing I’m about to say is a hard-fast rule.  A lot of it comes from a talk I had a few Christmases back with writer/director Shane Black (best known for Lethal Weapon, The Long Kiss Goodnight, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, the upcoming Iron Man 3, and a string of really awful dirty jokes in the movie Predator).  He had a few thoughts on how to assemble a story that I thought were very insightful, and I’m going to use his general framework to address this week’s topic.
            Having said that, just to make things less confusing, from here on in I’ll be referring to our collection of words as “a novel.”  It’ll be clear why as we move on.  Depending on what you want to write, feel free to swap “novel” out for screenplay, short story, epic poem, or whatever. 
            If I’ve got an idea for a novel, I want to look at it in terms of plot and story.  Can it expand into a full plot?  Does it lend itself to a strong story?
            Let’s go over each of these terms.
            Okay, first we need to understand what the plot is.  If I’m writing a book, the plot is what’s going to be on the back cover.  If I’m writing a screenplay, it’s going to be what they put on the back of the DVD.  Simply put, the plot is the chain of events that make up the novel.  It’s what makes readers need to turn the page so they can find out what happens next.
            It’s important to remember that one idea does not make a plot.  “There’s a haunted castle,” is not a plot.  “My partner is a robot,” is not a plot.  “I want to go to the prom with a cheerleader/ quarterback,” is not a plot.  A lone idea is just a plot point, and basic geometry tells us we need multiple points to make something worth looking at.  That something being a novel (or screenplay, epic poem, etc.).
            If I’m describing a plot, I’m going to use a lot of conjunctions.  I’ll be using and, but, and or to string all those plot points together.  Take a look at this example...

            Indiana Jones is an adventurer who finds ancient treasures and he’s a professor of archaeology at a university.  The government hires him to find the Ark of the Covenant before the Nazis, but the Nazis have a head start.  Indy goes to find his old mentor, but finds out that Abner has died and his daughter has a grudge against Indy.  The Nazis show up and Indy and Marion fight them off.  They travel to Cairo and meet Indy’s old partner, Sallah, but learn the Nazis already have their excavation well under way.  The Nazis try to have Indy killed in the marketplace and he fights them off again, but Marion is killed when the getaway truck explodes.  Indy and Sallah get the medallion deciphered but it turns out there are two parts to the inscription and the Nazis only have half of it.

            See what I mean?  Lots of points, and I’ve barely written out half the movie.   It’s also worth re-noting then none of those ideas on its own is a novel.  It’s when they start joining up that we get something that interests us. 
            This is where a lot of people mess up the whole idea of “expanding an idea into a novel.”  Y’see, Timmy, an idea doesn’t expand.  The plot expands as more ideas are added into it.  It’s impossible to expand “Indy and Sallah get the medallion deciphered” without adding a new element to the mix.  Seriously, try it.  Any attempt is just going to be some artificial wordplay and padding until I bring “it turns out there are two parts to the inscription” into it.
            It’s also worth noting another key thing.   For most good novels, the plot is the attempt to do something.  Not necessarily succeeding at something, mind you, but attempting to do it.  Beat the Nazis, save the girl, beat the system, save the clock tower, and so on.  Plot is active.  In that little summary up above, ten of the eighteen points are characters physically doing things. 
            Listing these points out can also be a hint that my story is getting a little thin on plot.  If I’m really stretching to come up with individual points, or falling back on a lot of inactive, internal points, that could mean my novel is veering into more of an artsy-character range.  If a lot of my points don’t really tie back to the main thrust of the novel, that’s another good sign.  There’s nothing wrong with that, provided I knock the character stuff out of the park.  Which brings us to our next point.
            Now, if plot is what goes on around the characters, the story is what goes on inside the characters.  Plot is big and external.  Story is small and intimate and internal.  It’s the personal stuff that explains why the characters are interested in the plot.  And if it’s why the characters are interested, it’s also why the reader is interested.  Plot makes us need to turn the page, but story makes us want to turn the page because we’ve come to like these characters. 
            A great example of plot vs. story is Silence of the Lambs.  The plot is the search for a missing girl, and some of the desperate decisions and deals the FBI will make to find her.  The story is about Clarice Starling trying to make up for what she sees as an awful failure in her childhood, and how much of her life is shaped by the need to balance that failure.
            I’ve said a few times here that characters are key to a successful novel, and that’s because without good characters you can’t have a lot of story.  I can have a ton of plot, but not much else.
            Now, because of this, developing an idea into a novel is a little tougher from the story side, because it involves developing characters.  How the characters react to the idea depends on who they are and how this idea interacts with their personality and history.  Which means they need to have personalities and histories.  And a lot of this can just come down to asking and answering questions that relate back to that original idea.
            Let’s go with the one I mentioned up at the top—my partner is a robot.  Let’s say my character is Bob.  Did Bob know this partnership was coming or did it get sprung on him?  Does he like being partnered with a robot?  Does he like robots in general?  What kind of partnership do they have?  Is Bob the junior or senior partner?  Why?  Do they work well together?  Does Bob have weaknesses the robot will compensate for (or vice versa)?    
            The answers to all of these questions expand the story.  Odds are that some of the answers will lead to more questions, too.  And more questions means the plot is expanding.
            As above, this can also be a hint that my novel is a little weak on the story side of things.  If I just give quick, inconsistent answers to these sort of questions, my characters are going to end up pretty flat.  Character arcs are a big part of the story, so if my character never changes in any noticeable way, it probably means my novel is emphasizing plot over everything else.  There’s nothing wrong with that—there are plenty of fantastic plot-driven  books and movies—but it does mean I need to have a really solid, engaging plot.
            It’s important to notice that story is why so many novels can use the same plot but still be very different.  Alan Moore’s Watchmen has the exact same plot as the classic Outer Limits episode “The Architects of Fear," but they have different stories.  The same with Never Let Me Go and The Island.  While the basic idea is the same, the character tweaks make each of these into unique stories.
            Consider this—how much does the story of Raiders of the Lost Ark change if I just do a gender swap on Indy?  Start way back with her relationship with Ravenwood’s underage son.  Would this still cause a falling out between the two professors?  How would the son view this past relationship?  And in the late 1930s, what would it be like for a female professor?  The male students hitting on her in class is a very different image, and would the government men be as enthusiastic when they learn Dr. Jones is a woman?  Our basic plot wouldn’t need to change too much, but all these story elements become very different.
            So when you’re looking to take an idea all the way to a full blown novel—or screenplay, epic poem, opera, or whatever it is you write—start with the basics.  Consider your idea as part of a larger plot.  Think of how it could fit into a character’s story.
            This week was kind of long and rambling, so next week I might just do something quick.  Whatever pops into my head.
            Until then, go write.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

One Step Ahead

            First off, if you want it, there’s kind of a bonus post this week.  Go check out Ebon Shores, a great little horror site from down under, where I was asked to prattle on for their "Wednesday Writer" column.  Actually, page through some of the past ones, too.  There’s a lot of really good stuff there.
            Speaking of horror...
            By nature of my chosen career, I tend to read and see a lot of horror stuff.  Specifically, post-apocalyptic stuff, usually with some form of zombie in it.  And there’s a certain recurring flaw that always gnaws at me. 
            It’s when characters do or say things that experience says they shouldn’t.  The kind of things that common sense tells you they should’ve figured out not to do or say ages ago.  How often do you see zombie hunters in t-shirts, even when they know one scratch could mean death?  Or that one guy who sets his gun down and walks a few yards away from it?  Or, knowing there could be zombies in the area, they reach into the dark room and start feeling around for a light switch with their one, ungloved hand...
            Or sometimes it’s what characters don’t do.  They’ll find a door and talk about how it might be locked, how it could be dead bolted, or how there may have been a cave in that’s blocking it from the other side.  The one thing none of them will do is actually attempt to open the door.  And if they did and it didn’t open, it’d never occur to them to try that key they found on the floor down the hallway.  Even though they know there’s a zombie apocalypse going on, they’ll forget to barricade windows.
            Simply put, it’s when the readers can see one step ahead and the characters can’t.  It’s when the audience can foresee the consequences of an action (or inaction), but the people in the story don’t.  And if the reader stops to think about that sort of thing, then I’m doing something wrong as a writer.  It means my characters’ choices or actions are breaking the flow of the story.
            There’s a very, very bad sequel to a very, very good classic World War Two movie.  Early in the film, our heroes arrive in Germany in a stolen plane.  The plan is to pose as German soldiers and officers, sneak away, and then begin their mission behind enemy lines.  It’s only after the four hour flight, as the plane is taxiing to a stop at the end of the landing strip, that the mission commander realize the one flaw in their plan.  One of the team members is a black man!  How will they pass him off as a Nazi?
            The resolution was kind of clever in that quick-fix sort of way, but it didn’t change the fact that the whole situation was stupid as hell.  The one question everyone asks at this point is “Why the hell did no one think of this before?”
           Y’see, like most readers and movie watchers, I have a tendency to think about what I’d do in a given situation.  I’d punch that guy.  I’d lean in and kiss the girl.  I’d make sure my shotgun was loaded before I stepped out into the zombie-filled hallway.  And nothing frustrates me more as a reader than when I see an immediate, obvious flaw in a character’s motivations or actions.
            That’s not to say every character should react like me (or you, or that guy).  If the writer’s got any sense of empathy, though, I should at least be able to see why characters make the choices they do.  I might’ve punched that guy, but Jack Reacher might be biding his time or just trying to keep a low profile and not to stir up too much trouble.  Many of us might’ve leaned in to kiss Elizabeth Swann, but we all understand why Will Turner feels bound by duty, honor, and social mores to let that opportune moment slip by. 
            Y’see, Timmy, one of the best things I can do as a storyteller is think one step ahead.  For the most part, the audience shouldn’t be able to think of something I didn’t already think of.  Oh, there’s always going to be that five or six percent who shriek about “totally obvious” things, but forget them.  I don’t need to cover everything, I just need to answer the immediate questions.
            “Hanging a lantern on it” is a great example of being one step ahead.  I know this odd coincidence is going to bother the reader, so I’ll have one of my characters point out how odd and coincidental it is
            LOST did this a lot to help take the edge off some of the oddities of the island and the plot devices they needed to further the story.  Hurley questions why there’s a brand new washer and dryer set in the otherwise very retro underground station called The Swan.  Kate and Sun wonder what kind of person travels with a pregnancy test.  Ben questions the odds of a spinal surgeon literally dropping out of the sky just a few weeks after he learns he’s got a tumor on his spine.
            Looking ahead can also be a good gauge for exposition and figuring out how much is too much.  In a couple of my books and novellas I have scenes of scientific jargon and techno-speak.  But I don’t need to explain things out in full and exacting detail.  I just need to be one step ahead and address enough points that my story doesn’t get hung up on my lack of explanation. 
            In Ex-Patriots I explain that the military’s been “training” zombies to follow simple orders.  But I don’t leave it at that.  In the same chapter I introduce the idea of the Nest—a NEural STimulator—which sends electricity to parts of a zombie’s brain in order to reactivate it.  I don’t need to explain what parts of the brain, how much voltage or amperage, or how they first tested it.
            A famous example of this is in Back to the Future, when Doctor Emmet Brown tells us he’s made a time machine out of a DeLorean.  Even as we’re processing this, though, part of us wondering... well, how?  How does someone turn a sports car into a time machine?  It’s kind of goofy and ludicrous all at the same time.  And then Doc shows us the flux capacitor and tells Marty (and the audience), “this is what makes time travel possible.”  And it’s glowy and it buzzes and, well... yeah, okay, that makes sense. A DeLorean on its own couldn’t travel through time, but a DeLorean with a flux capacitor channeling 1.21 gigawatts of electricity...
             Doc’s addressed our question before we even got to ask it out loud. So the story never pauses and we get carried along into the next bit.  And the DeLorean goes down in history (no pun intended) as probably one of the top three fictional time machines.
            Sometimes all staying ahead takes is being aware of where the characters are in the story.  If I’m confusing the first time I’m showing something to the reader with the first time the characters have seen it, that’s going to lead to problems.  There are mistakes and screw ups that we’ll accept from amateurs in any field, but not from people who’ve supposedly been doing this for a while (whatever this is).  If my plot point depends on a Master Sergeant in the Army not knowing how to load a pistol or the head chef at a restaurant not being able to tell salt from sugar... well, there better be a damned good reason for it.
            Stay one step ahead of the reader.  Know where they’re going to go, be there waiting for them, and guide them back to the path you want them on.  Not the path where they growl in frustration and shout “Why the heck did they...?”  And then toss your manuscript in that big pile on the left
            Next time, by request, I wanted to talk about how you can use plot and story to develop an idea.
            Until then, go write.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

This AND That

            Sorry for the delay.  I was out of town all of yesterday and a lot of today’s been spent playing catch up.  Of course, if I’d been thinking ahead, that wouldn’t’ve happened. And I’d have that post about thinking ahead done.
            Instead, let me give you a quick tip.  This one’s inspired by a book I just finished reading.  It frustrated me on several levels...
            One of the joys of being an author is finding clever ways to influence the reader.  When I know I’ve guided the reader down one path of assumptions—or maybe away from the correct set—that’s a great feeling.  There’s a lot of ways we can do this, but the most common one is formatting.  After all, the way the words sit on the page affects how the reader takes them in, and if I’ve got a good grasp of how said reader will interpret that layout, it lets me manipulate them a little more.
            The catch here is that I can’t use the same formatting trick for multiple things.  If we were watching a movie and I told you all the people dressed in red were robots, and then the movie introduced a dozen characters in red who were aliens, there’d be some serious problems with my interpretation of the movie.  If I establish that every scene with blurry edges is a flashback, I can’t also use blurry edges to mean a character is having a clairvoyant vision.
            For example...
            In Ex-Heroes the character of Zzzap always speaks in italics without quotation marks.  Like I mentioned above, it’s a visual trick to show that, in his energy form, he doesn’t sound or talk quite like a normal person.  His voice has a buzz, an edge, that separates it from normal dialogue.
            The catch is that it means I have to be very, very careful about using italics anywhere else.  A lot of authors use them to indicate a character’s thoughts, but that was right out for me.  It’d get too confusing—especially in any scenes Zzzap was in.  And confusion is one of those things that breaks the flow of a story.
            The same with emphasis.  It’s common to use italics when you really want to accent something.  But I had to be careful using them in Ex-Heroes because if I led off a sentence with italics it’d look like Zzzap was speaking.   And if that causes a moment or two of confusion, well... there goes the flow again.
            In the book I just finished, the author used quotes for dialogue, but he also used them for character’s thoughts.  So more than once there were paragraphs like this...

            “Okay, nobody move!” shouted Phoebe.  “The shock of me yelling should keep them off guard for a few moments,” she thought.  “Put your hands behind your heads and get on your knees,” she continued out loud.

            See the problem there?  There were maybe a dozen points in the book that shook me for a moment, and at least half a dozen where it broke the narrative and I had to look back to figure out if that last bit had been spoken or thought.  That’s almost twenty chances for me to put the book down in frustration.
             If I want to do something different in your manuscript, format-wise, that’s fantastic.  Hell, Cormac McCarthy has pretty much built a career of it.  But I need to be consistent.  I can’t say that all dialogue will be in quotes and also have thoughts in quotes.  I can’t tell you that writing in all caps means text messages but also have it indicate telepathy two pages later.
            Make sense?
            “Make sense?”
            MAKE SENSE!?!?
            Thinking ahead to next time, I’ll have that post about keeping ahead done by then.
            Until then, go write something.
            And be consistent about it.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

The Deadly Triangle

            You know who likes triangles?
            Pirates and ninjas. 
            Just saying.
            However, since no one here (to the best of my knowledge) is either a pirate or a ninja, I should probably just talk about how writers deal with triangles.
            Triangles are a form of conflict we’ve all come across.  Probably one of the easiest a writer can create.  It’s when a character (A) has to choose between two options (B and C).  A is pursuing B, but it’s clear C should be the priority.  Making the decision between B and C provides the conflict, the drama, and maybe even some comedy depending on how it’s done.
            We’ve all heard of romantic triangles.  It’s one of the most common ones out there.  Phoebe is dating Wakko, but then comes to realize her best friend Yakko is her real soulmate.  Bob is engaged to a bridezilla, but can’t help falling for the caterer.  The standard in most romantic triangles is that B is very clearly not the right person for A, while C is so blatantly right it’s almost frustrating.
            Another triangle most of us have probably seen is the “work vs. family” one.  Will Doug choose to spend the weekend with his family or working on the Hammond account?  Mary’s training so hard with the team that her relationship with her boyfriend is starting to suffer.  There are a few versions of this.  Sometimes it’s friends instead of family.  It’s usually work on the other leg, but it could be any sort of mild obsession or compulsion.  Am I choosing my best friend or this treasure map?  My pets or my new apartment?
             Triangles are great because it’s a very simple plot and framework that we can all immediately relate to and understand.  They make for easy subplots in novels, and for short stories and screenplays they can almost be the entire story.  This is one of the reasons we keep seeing them again and again and again.
            Just because something’s easy and common doesn’t mean it doesn’t get messed up.  I’ve seen a lot of scripts and stories where the writer messed up the triangle.  Heck, I’ve seen a few films that messed it up.  I don’t think it’s a coincidence that none of these films did well at the box office.  Or on Netflix...
            How can I mess up a triangle, you ask?
            Well, the whole reason we have a triangle is because there’s A, B, and C.  If I eliminate one of these—let’s say B—then all I’ve got left is a straight line between A and C.  This means there’s no choice.  It’s just process of elimination.
            Let me give an example...
            I saw one film a few years back where a young man decides to travel cross country to lose his virginity with a young woman he met online (she’s his soul mate, after all).  Along for the ride is his longtime best friend, the ugly-pretty girl from next door (played, as usual, by a Victoria’s Secret model wearing slouchy clothes and a pair of glasses), who we all sense is a better match for our hero than this mystery online woman.  In fact, his good friend points out if all this is just about having sex, they could just lose their virginity to each other—at least then it’d be with someone they each care about rather than a stranger.
            Our young protagonist is determined, though, and it turns out our mystery woman is an honest-to-god psychopath.  Some third act hijinks take place, our heroes get away, and a few nights later they settle in down on the basement couch to finish up their unfinished business.  The film ends with the happy couple together. 
            Or how about this one—not a specific story in this case, but we’ve all still seen before... 
            Phoebe is so obsessed with getting her next promotion that she misses her son’s baseball game, her daughter’s violin recital, and the anniversary party her husband arranged for them.  But she keeps at it because this promotion will put her in a key position for the next promotion, and that’s the one that’s going to put her on top and change their lives. 
            The stress of all this is too much, though, and Phoebe snaps.  She screws up an account and yells at a client.  When she’s called on it, she even yells at her boss.  The end result is that she’s fired.  But after a week at home with her kids and her husband, she realizes this is where she was supposed to be all along, with her family.  They may not be filthy rich, but the film ends with the happy family together.
            Did both of those feel a little hollow to you?  A little lacking?
            What happened in both of these examples is that character A never really made a choice.  Once B was eliminated, there wasn’t anything to do except go with C.  Character A didn’t do anything active, they just went with what was left.  Which isn’t terribly satisfying for C, one would think.  Or the readers.
            Y’see, Timmy, A has to realize C is the right choice before things go bad with B.  If not, getting C isn’t a triumph.  It’s just a consolation prize.
            If my story has a triangle, it has to keep that triangle up until the moment of resolution.  B can still be a poor choice, but A has to actively realize that and then make the choice to go with C instead.  Once that’s happened, I can get B out of the picture, but not until then.
            Make sense?
            By the way, if anyone’s got any particular topics they’d like me to address or revisit in my weekly prattlings, feel free to toss something in the comments.  In the meantime, I’m going to try to stay one step ahead of the readership here.
            Starting next week.
            Until then, go write.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

The Bomb Will Kill An Innocent Person

             Running behind this week.  Sorry.  I’ve just gotten too relaxed after Ex-Communication and the success of 14.  And I got zombie Legos, which have taken up far more of my time than a grown man should probably admit to...
            Bonus points if you know when Batman blackmailed someone with that title line.  Yeah, Batman.  Hiding a bomb somewhere in Gotham to stop his opponent.
            Anyway... on a related note.
            The late, great Alfred Hitchcock had a famous example about suspense that you’ve probably heard before.  To paraphrase, suspense is when two people are having breakfast and they don’t know there’s a bomb under the table.  If the bomb goes off, it’s a shock, absolutely, but the longer they sit there and the bomb doesn’t go off... well, the tension’s going up a few notches every minute.
            Now there’s a few conditions that have to be met for this to work.  It doesn’t matter if I'm writing a short story, a novel, or a screenplay.  Suspense needs certain elements to be effective.
            First off is that there has to be a real threat.  A can of whipped cream under the table just doesn’t equate to four pounds of plastique.  Neither does four pounds of liquid negathilium with a dynochrome timer, because none of us have the slightest clue what that is (for all we know it might be tastier than the whipped cream).  The bomb under the table has to be something the readers immediately understand is a horrible thing.
            Second, the reader or audience needs to know about the threat, even though the character doesn’t.  We have to be cringing every time they bang a glass on the table or pound their fist for emphasis.  If one of them is checking their watch, it should make us tremble every time we see those hands tick forward another minute.
            Third is that the characters need to be smart enough to recognize that threat—if they knew about it.  This is where it gets tricky, because this requirement has to be carefully balanced with the first two. 
            Let me toss out a trio of quick examples.  Names have been changed to protect the innocent.
            A while back I watched a movie where the main character’s friend was... well, psycho.  Not quietly, in-the-background psycho, mind you.  She was brutally-kill-your-pet, attack-and-mutilate your next best-friend, constantly-check-up-on-you, stare-at-you-longingly while you sleep psycho.  There were so many warning signs that she was unstable.  How could everyone not catch all those pointed glances and wild eyes and trembling hands.
            My lovely lady was reading a script a while back where a naive country boy moved to Manhattan and was taken advantage of again and again.  And again.  And then one more time after that.  And every time it was made painfully obvious that the woman/ man/ indeterminate the main character was dealing with was screwing him over.  It was like reading a cartoon script where nobody recognizes Snidely Whiplash as the villain, even with his black cape, twirling mustache, and bad habit of ending every sentence with an evil cackle.
            Finally, there was a fairly popular sci-fi prequel this summer.  It featured, in one scene, a hissing alien which seemed to be a cross between an cobra, a python, and a gigantic, albino leech.  One of the human characters, you may remember, kept trying to pat it on the head.
            In each of these cases, the writers were so desperate to meet one or both of the first two requirements (establishing the threat and letting the reader know about that threat) that the third requirement suffered for it.  This is a recurring mistake I see when people try to create suspense.  My characters aren’t supposed to know about the bomb (to keep using our main example), so they just don’t see it.  No matter how much evidence there is that a high explosive device has been activated under the breakfast table, no one reacts.  Because if they reacted, there wouldn’t be any suspense.  So the attempt to create tension just creates a ridiculous blind spot instead.
            Y’see, Timmy, there’s a corollary lesson to be learned here.  If there’s a bomb under the table and my characters don’t know it, that could be considered suspense, yes. 
            However, if the bomb has a bright red flasher, ticks louder than Big Ben, and the characters still don’t know about it, that isn’t suspense. 
            It just means my characters are idiots.
            And it’s tough for any of us to relate to characters who are idiots.  I’ve mentioned a few times now that my characters should always be as smart as my audience.  If they’re not, everyone’s just going to get frustrated.  So when I’m building suspense and tension, I have to make sure it’s in a way that makes my characters look smart while still informing my readers.
            No, it isn’t easy.  If it was, everybody would be doing it.
            Next time, I want to talk about triangles.  They’re dangerous, pointy things.
            Until then, go write.