Thursday, December 31, 2009

Hindsight / Make 'em Laugh

I have awesome powers of hindsight. I am really good at thinking, a day too late, "What I should have said was..."

Today is the last day of 2009. I didn't post last Thursday because it was Christmas Eve. What I should have posted then, in the grand spirit of giving, was this:

It's a site with a simple premise - if you go there, the site's advertisers will make donations to various worthy charities. All you have to do is click a button or two. No purchase necessary.

As for this week's post, I'm going to share a little secret. This is a trick that other writers have used that always works on me. Early in the story, make your characters laugh. It helps, of course, if the joke is actually funny and the reader laughs too. But if your characters are capable of laughter, I will follow them through hell.

When the protagonist starts out wallowing in angst I get worried. After all, for conflict and tension to build, things have to get worse. But when bad things happen to characters who share jokes and camaraderie, then I care. It's a simple variation on the idea that the reader is more apt to like a character who is actually, well, likable.

And maybe laughter isn't your key. Maybe you like characters who make art, or who express romantic feelings, or who (wrapping back to the first half of the thread) do charity work. But if your characters are people you might like, there's a good chance your audience will like them too.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Breakin' Rules

A lot of current fiction is serialized. Television is the obvious example, where we tune in to a new episode each week, usually following the same characters in the same setting or overall situation. It's not just TV. Moviemakers love franchises -- how many Star Trek movies are there now? How many James Bond films? Novels too -- I could name several continuing book series.

With consistent, ongoing characters and settings, stories begin to follow certain patterns, develop certain rules. There are, for example, directions the stories just don't take because it would be too counter to what the audience (viewers or readers) expect. An action series may flirt with horror elements, but will likely lose audience if it becomes a totally horrific, just as a horror franchise would lose audience if it failed to terrify.

But I'm not just talking genre. Rules are implied by character, by setting, by story structure. . . I suppose the classic example is Gilligan's Island. No matter what crazy things the castaways try, they can never escape the Island. If they do, the show is over.

But sometimes rules should be broken. If a rule is implied strongly enough that the audience has come to accept it, the breaking of the rule is an obviously dramatic event. The rules represent the way things are. If the rules are broken, the implication is that things will never be the same again.

The catch, of course, is that you can't go home again. Efforts to restore the status quo, to return to the way things were, will be obvious to the audience and will undercut any value gained from breaking the rules. The first run of Star Trek movies suffered from this -- promoting Kirk above Captain and then demoting him, removing Spock and then returning him, destroying the ship and then replacing it.

Imagine the new and different stories -- the brave new worlds -- we could have had if all the changes had stuck.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Talkin' Conflict

Drama comes from conflict. No big revelation there. That's high school English level stuff. But here is the tricky part -- quality drama comes from seemingly insurmountable conflict. It comes from seeing our protagonist face a problem with no obvious solution. Because, after all, if there is an obvious solution and our hero doesn't see it, then our hero is an idiot.

In my second novel -- speaking of missing the obvious, I never established my credentials before starting this project. I am, in fact, a published novelist. You can look me up on Amazon and everything. So, where was I?

In my second novel, my hero is a rock star and she's on a special intimate venue tour where she's playing accoustic versions of her hit songs. She loves the tour. She believes she needs the tour. So, as a typical sadistic author, I want to create conflict by taking the tour away from her. I need her to leave the tour in order to grow and learn what she really wants and needs.

So I wrote this scene where her management shuts the tour down because it is not promoting new songs and they want a new album. Nice conflict, right? But the thing is, there was this trend awhile ago (and the book was written awhile ago) where rock stars were successfully selling albums recorded off of live accoustic tours. The tour could be the new album. And if I could think of it, the reader could think of it.

You can't be smarter than all your readers. But you still want to try. So I went back and re-wrote the scene. Management threatens to shut the tour down, the band says "Hey, let's make a live concert album!" and suddenly our hero looks smarter because she's found a solution to a conflict instead of missing a solution to a conflict.

And everyone is happy. Except the author, because the plot isn't going the way he intended and he doesn't want the characters happy at this stage of the book. But that's a conflict that's invisible to the reader and that's how it should be. When you buy a chair, you don't care how difficult it may have been for the carpenter to make. You care whether it's a quality chair.

Quick note: Next Thursday is Christmas Eve. If I don't get the regular Thursday post out, I will pick up again the next Tuesday.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Smoking Gun - or, More Details

The last post was about how the voice of the author gives details significance to the reader. (The post is still there if you don't believe me. Go ahead and look. I'll wait.) So this time I would like to add that the details of the world can, and often should, be significant to the characters. Consider the difference between being in a park and being in the park where the protagonist had her first kiss.

As people, we often respond to what others think and feel. If a detail in the environment makes the character think and feel, we are more likely to respond to the character.

This technique allows the author to imbue meaning into objects that will be used later in the story. Instead of just showing Chekov's gun on the mantelpiece, make it memorable. Daddy used to take me hunting with that gun. I've always hated having that thing in the house.

There is more power, more resonance if you will, to hitting someone over the head with a frying pan if the character being hit has been established as an obnoxious chef who cares more about his equipment than the people around him. Sure, you could hit the guy with a baseball bat, but it wouldn't be as good.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Nothing is Irrelevant

There is an axiom in theater, attributed to the Russian playwright Chekov, that goes something like this: If a gun is visible onstage in Act One, it should be fired by the end of the play. And if a gun is to be fired during the play, it should be visible onstage in Act One.

In theater, or really any kind of fiction, the day-to-day details of life are chosen for the audience. Strolling down the street, minding your own business, you may notice several irrelevant details: a tree, a drugstore, a small boy with an ice cream cone. In fiction, however, it's more like the author is walking beside you, pointing things out. "Look," the author says, "see that tree? And the drugstore? And over there, there's a boy with an ice cream cone."

This gives the details of the story a certain weight. They have been selected from all the possible details that could have been provided. If the details are not important, than the author becomes a bore and the reader stops listening.

This doesn't mean there can't be stage dressing -- details may exist only to set the time, place, or mood. Boy with ice cream is significantly different from boy huddled close under the shelter of his mother's umbrella.

But any detail that stands out, that appears odd or fraught with additional significance, must be resolved. A gun, for example, or perhaps a child eating ice cream on a cold rainy day --must have a pay off or the reader will wonder why they were there.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Story in a Sentence

Can you tell a whole story in one sentence? If we assume a fairly classic definition of story -- requiring character, conflict, and resolution -- than I would say yes, but it would either be a poor story or a really long and awkward sentence rather like this one.

Bob fell into a hole and climbed out. Technically that has character (Bob), conflict (fell into a hole), and resolution (climbed out.) But who cares? The reader has no idea who Bob is or why falling into a hole is bad, or what effort is required to escape. There are no stakes, no pressure.

Bob, an underpaid janitor, fell painfully into a hole and, afraid of being late to work and losing his lousy job and the ability to support his family, struggled valiantly until he was finally able to climb out. Really, I ask you: Does that really need to be all one sentence?

It is worth noting, however, how much a single, well-planned sentence can convey. Here's one from a song (for songs, like poetry, have to express a lot in a controlled amount of space) --

"If I had a dollar for every ace I've ever drawn, I could arm a town the size of Abilene."

It isn't a story. But it says a lot about how the character thinks. Personally, I don't normally think in terms of gambling and armaments, but the speaker here is clearly more of a scoundrel. And we get a geographic reference to boot.

I'm going to leave you with one more nice, expressive sentence, also from a song. See if it says anything to you.

"But you made one mistake my love, you did not kill us all."

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Choosing Words - or - Talkin' 'bout Tits

I've been thinking about word choice and the stereotype of writers agonizing over just the right word. So here are my random thoughts --

Word choice is particularly important in dialogue, where it highlights the individual personalities of characters. Word choice may also be important for sound, rythmn, or feel. And different words may have different qualities, even if they mean essentially the same thing.

For example, let's take a slightly socially awkward topic, where people might, consciously or unconsciously, be more careful with word choice. It's my observation, backed by absolutely zero scientific study, that women are more likely to say "boobs" while men are more likely to say "tits." Boobs is a softer, funnier word, with the extended vowel and the soft begining and ending consonents. In contrast, tits sounds harsh and sharp.

And, to stress it further, boobs becomes funnier when converted to the more playful boobies. On the other hand, titties sounds rude and derogetory. Your milage my vary, of course. But you can see how the word choice becomes highly significant when the topic is loaded.

And, for the record, boobies and tits are both types of birds. What did you think I was talking about?

Thursday, December 3, 2009


Today I want to raise (but perhaps not truly answer) the question of what makes a satisfying story. I think it's a question we will be discussing for some time. I want to start with the basic notion of considering what promises have been made to the reader or audience and paying attention to whether the promises have been kept.

I remember back when the second season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer was airing on TV for the first time. At the time, I predicted an upcoming surprise plot point. (I'm going to try to do this without spoilers, if I can.) There was a lot of talk early in the season about how cruel and evil the new villain was. There was also a part of the ongoing background soap opera that was starting to repeat itself. So there were two things the show needed to do -- (1) show the villian doing something beyond the typical attacking of nameless guest stars and (2) shake up the soap opera.

Looking at it that way, using the villian to mess with the soap opera seems obvious. But when it happened, it took most of my viewing friends by surprise. I only caught it because I asked a writer's question -- What does this story need to be satisfying? The villian needs to hurt us, I thought, what will actually hurt?

Another way to look at it (and this is what I often do) is to ask why the story isn't satisfying. Is the villian all talk and no action? Unsatisfactory. Are the character relationships going around in circles? Unsatisfactory. Seeing the problem often suggests the necessary fix.

And if it doesn't? Well, that leaves us something to discuss for later.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

First Post - Hi there -

Welcome to my new space. Come in and make yourself at home. Wipe your feet; the carpet is still new. Would you like some coffee?

One of the in-laws has asked me to prepare a course on the Art of Writing. I'll be using this space, mostly on Tuesdays and Thursdays, to gather my thoughts on the subject. (There will, of course, be the occasional digression, fueled by my other media passions such as superheroes, Japanese animation, British television, role-playing games, and so forth. But we'll try to stay on target.)

And feel free to let me know if there are any topics of writerly interest that you want to see discussed.