Friday, December 31, 2010

Post Mutant Magic Syndrome

First, as I write this it’s the last day of 2010.  So Happy New Year to all my readers.  Second, this may turn into a rant. Hey, I’m sure I’m the first blogger that’s ever happened to.

The weeks surrounding the holidays have thrown me a little off track, so I haven’t really been keeping up on either my blogging or my writing.  As a result, The Illusionist's House has hit something of a stall.  I have also taken on another writing project, a (theoretically) short web-comic script for a sister-in-law.

Looking back on my work-in-progress, I see it suffers from a modern condition that I have chosen to call, for want of some other equally stupid name, Post Mutant Magic Syndrome.

Long-time readers will probably have gotten the impression that I like superheroes.  They would be right.  One of the interesting traits of the genre is that superpowers are frequently (though not always) well defined.  Readers like the heroes with clearly defined limits – it cuts down on the Deus ex Machina endings you get if a hero can pull any power out of his hat. 

Marvel Comic’s mutants are a good example – the usually only have one or two very specific powers.  This one has wings, that one can walk through walls.

Now the fantasy genre relies heavily on magic and magic, as a general rule, defies easy definition and classification.  Only not so much, any more. 

I’ve been reading a collection of werewolf short stories but current popular urban fantasy authors.  As is the modern trend in dark fantasy, there is more than one thing out there going bump in the night.  In a world of demons and vampires, a werewolf can actually be the good guy.  And who doesn’t like to see werewolves and vampires at war?

This leads to more definition for the supernatural element. I’m okay with different stories defining the monsters differently – these werewolves turn into wolves, those turn into wolfmen.  I’m a big fan of doing what serves the story.  But some of these worlds are becoming so populated with magical beings that rigid scientific principles of taxonomy are starting to apply.  I recently read a story by an author I really like where the hero (a vampire-hunting werewolf) paused to explain the difference between the powers of witches and wizards.

It’s starting to take some of the magic out of things.  I mean, these stories still work for me on the level in which I enjoy superheroes, but the trade-off is a level of mystery.

Which brings us back to my current work in progress, which hinges on defining the limits on illusion magic as distinct from several other forms.  I’m writing what I’m ranting against and I’m not sure how I feel about that.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

And now a Rebuttal…

‘Twas the blog before Christmas…

I want to make a counter argument to my last blog post.  In it, I noted that an author might choose to write a scene one way or another, depending on the expected audience and the intended genre.  I went so far as to state that a book aimed at one audience might loose readers if it delved too far into the writing style of another genre.

It does happen, by the way.  I’ve seen it.

But isn’t there an argument for just writing the best, most powerful stuff you can, without worrying about who it’s for?  For not letting some editor in the back of your brain convince you it won’t sell to your target audience?  I mean, if you write the good stuff, surely someone will like it, right?

I suppose it depends on what you consider the good stuff.  There is something to be said for internal consistency, after all.  An R rated scene in an otherwise G rated story stands out like a cue ball in a bowl of oranges.  It might be the absolute best way to depict that scene, but does it serve the overall story?

There is no right answer, of course.  Novelists and dramatists and movie producers struggle with this all the time.  And you know, I didn’t want you to miss out on a good struggle in your own work.

Happy holidays!

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Unexpected Horror

For those who read my last installment, I’m still not sure about the novel I am currently reading.  If it is a romance, it understands the conventions of fantasy better than the last romance I accidently read.  I’m a little disappointed because it is not as funny as the back cover made it sound, but that’s another issue.

What’s interesting is that the story could support a range of genres, with the major difference being not the events of the plot but the way they are told.

In an early scene of the book, our heroes, who at this point dislike each other intensely, are fighting zombies in a mine.  This could have been a great horror scene. As written, the novel does not invoke the claustrophobic atmosphere of the mine, the intrinsic fear of being buried with the dead, the revolting condition of the zombie miners, the helplessness of our heroes, or any of the wonderful creepiness that the scene presents.

It could have been a very powerful, very spooky, encounter.

But just because something can be done, does not mean it should be.  I don’t know if the author wanted to catch fantasy readers, romance readers, or both.  Either way, a sudden drop into horror with no warning is not likely to please the readership.  Displeased readers do not finish the book.  More importantly, they don’t buy the author’s next book.

Of course, there is no magic formula to find the balance.  A little more horror might have made the scene more real, more exciting.  But too much and suddenly you are in the wrong novel.  Part of it is consistency of tone, part of it is knowing what kind of story you are writing.

But don’t stress too much at the start – consistency and tone are good things to watch for as you edit your later drafts.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Unexpected Romance

I have a sneaking suspicion that the novel I am currently reading is a romance novel. They used to keep the darn things safely quarantined in the bookstore, but recently they’ve been allowed to sneak over and infect the fantasy and time-travel stories.

It’s easy to poke fun at the romance genre, with its ripping bodices and lurid covers. But to be fair, I am hopelessly devoted to other genres that are just as ludicrous when viewed from the outside.  “No capes!” as Edna Mode would say.

If this is a romance, it will be only the second I have ever read. I didn’t know what I was getting into with the first one, either. I hope this one is a better novel. But I am having a problem with it.

In the story, the female lead, who is also the viewpoint character, is forced to work with the male lead.  She considers him to be arrogant, condescending, and generally infuriating.

And so far, I like him a lot better than I like her.

Now if I am correct and this is a romance novel, she will slowly come to appreciate his worth and he will ultimately prove worthy of her affection.  This means that the author has a difficult task – because looking back from the end of the novel, the male lead cannot have been so bad at the beginning that hooking up with him is unacceptable at the end.

So maybe I’m just not supposed to see the obvious, like not asking why no one can tell in a glance that Clark Kent is Superman.  The downside to relying on genre conventions to protect you is that the reader has to know what they are.

In any case, I appreciate that the author has set her viewpoint character up for a significant change in perspective. It should be a nice growth arc.  But so far, the change has to be in her, because the male lead is currently a lot better at knowing right from wrong and acting accordingly.  I think the sea change would work better if some of her accusations were a little more on the mark. (Ok, he is a little pompous.)

So maybe we can add a new thought to our early discussions of making a satisfying story:  It works even better if the reader doesn’t see it coming a mile away.

I’m only a third of the way into the book, so it is possible that it will break my expectations and prove to be something other than standard romance fare.  But if it wanted to be a horror novel, it is already too late.

More on that in our next installment…

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

One year later…

This blog is one year old today.  I’ve been doing this, even if not quite as regularly as I should, for a year now.

It was easy in the early days.  I’ve spent a lot of creative thought on the subject of creative thought.  At the beginning, I had a vast pool of ideas to from which to pull.  Ideas about the writing process, about plot structure and satisfying stories, about creativity and imagination.

And I didn’t have to worry about repeating myself.

So now I need to stop and think about what this blog will be for the next year.

For the moment, the writing project I started in November still continues, but at a slower pace than I might like.  I think if I had signed up for Nanowrimo I’d have a higher word count.  The impossible question is whether I’d be happier with the story.

My writing style is not particularly dense.  I like stories that read quickly.  But I’m trying to write a little less sparsely this time.  To make sure that I get all the value out of each scene.  To make sure my first-person narrator takes time to contemplate the meaning of the events happening around him.

This means that I am reviewing scenes and revisiting scenes.  In contrast, my typical page-count producing Nano style involves always jumping ahead to the next scene to keep up my interest and to build word count.

The thing is, way I’m not doing it might still produce better odds of getting a finished piece.  I’ve got four published novels on my resume and I’m still learning.

And that’s what keeps it fun.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Thanksgiving and Priorities

Oh boy, it’s been a week. Sorry for not blogging earlier, but here’s the thing – between bad travelling weather, the need to make up lost hours at work, and the Thanksgiving holiday, I’ve not had a lot of time to write. So when I did write, I worked on my current manuscript instead of blogging.

I suppose the prioritizing of creative time is an issue for everyone. I love the idea of the professional writer who sits in his quiet cabin and just writes, trusting that his or her efforts will ultimately pay the bills.  I’m not there yet.  I assume most writers are not.  So, in this Thanksgiving week, let me just say I am thankful to have a day job.

Oddly, I get appear to get more done when there are more demands on my time. I did a lot less writing when I was unemployed. Now I find myself thinking ahead about when I can get this or that done, while still allowing time to eat, sleep, and spend quality time with my wife and friends.

So when I know I have time to work on my manuscript, I do.

Do I have my priorities straight? Possibly not if the goal is to become a truly pro writer. But I am happy and relatively sane.

And I’m still writing.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

On the Cutting Room Floor

So I’m writing away on my current November project, The Illusionist’s House, and I’ve already deleted a scene. It was one of the first scenes I thought of, too, when the whole project first came into my head.

I remember when I first started buying movies on DVD. All those lovely extra features! And deleted scenes were particularly enticing. After all, if I liked the actors and the film, what could be better than having a little bit more, right?

Well no, not really. I quickly realized that if the film were any good in the first place, the deleted scenes had been excised for a reason.  Sometimes it’s fun to watch them just to pick out why.

Sometimes a scene serves to make a character less sympathetic than they should be. Sometimes it just screws up the pacing.  Sometimes it presents information that is better presented somewhere else.  Sometimes they just don’t work.

I have occasionally stumbled across a scene that should have stayed in the film, but these gems are rare indeed. The film people are professionals – they know what they are doing.

Knowing that the professionals produce more than they need and have to pare their story down in the editing room is comforting.  Film and actors cost a lot more than keystrokes. Cutting and editing don’t mean I’m doing wrong, they mean I’m doing it right.

And isn’t that a happy thought?

Friday, November 12, 2010

Don’t Abuse the Muse

Writers and poets and other artists should, I suppose, be very nice to their muses. Right now I want to smack mine upside the head.

So here I am, on the bus.  I downloaded that old Nanowrimo piece that I discussed in my last blog entry onto the halfling laptop a few days ago and I’m ready to start revising.

On my way to the bus stop this new idea spring loads into my head. It has characters, a narrative voice, an opening sequence, even a tentative title, The Illusionist’s House. All I have to do is write it down. The old Nano piece still doesn’t have a title, a year later.

So do I practice discipline and work on the piece I have committed to doing (if only in my last blog entry) or follow the advice I gave a few posts back and respect the mysteries of my brain? A classic writer’s dilemma.

If I had a firm deadline for the old piece, if I had a contract waiting, I’d do the professional thing and concentrate on it. I might take the time to jot down notes on the new piece while it remains fresh and inspiring.

But since I am at liberty, I will follow the muse, even if she can be difficult at times.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Unintentionally Deliberate

Way back in the long ago, I used to take Tai Chi classes. The instructor liked to talk about doing Tai Chi with intention. The idea being that anyone could just go through the motions, but they wouldn’t really be doing anything beneficial – just making empty gestures. To do it right required focus and breathing and, well, intention.

The word intention also means purpose, or goal. There is a difference, for example, in writing something for the fun of it and writing something you hope to publish.

All of which makes me wonder – when did a just-for-fun, one-month, knock-off script writing project become something I’d be revising and editing half a year later? I still have no expectations of it ever being published or produced. But I still want it done right.

Ars gratia artis. (Art for art’s sake. Also known as I’m going to finish this, damn it and I’m going to get this right, damn it.) I guess the work can become it’s own intention.

So now I’ve got the script done. For my next move, I’m re-writing an old Nanowrimo project with new intentions. I don’t know yet if I am aiming for something that can be published or just something I can learn from and blog about.

But chasing word  count for Nano last year gave me a good foundation from which to start. So now I intend to polish it up and do it right.

Stick with me and we’ll see what it becomes.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

April in November, or, Continuity Editing

I think I’m almost done. Remember my D&D-style movie script that I wrote last April? The one for the 100-page Script Frenzy challenge?  After it was done, I decided it needed a little revision.

The original draft never had the moment where our heroes’ success was truly in doubt. Where, if I might borrow a phrase, the quest stood on a knife’s edge. So I went back and added one. No big, right?

But everything after that point in the plot was subtly shifted. I couldn’t just cut-n-paste the previous ending on wholesale. So, now I think I’m done, but I’ve shuffled so much stuff around that I need to do a continuity editing pass.

It’s an annoying step – mostly because it’s a technical, almost mechanical job, rather than an imaginative, creative one. What I need to do is review the draft and account for the progression of events. I’m looking for things like characters using their weapons two scenes after being disarmed.  And who has the McGuffin, which changes hands as McGuffins tend to do.

So here’s another secret of writing, which I hope inspires you as much as it does me. Sometime in writing, like in any craft, there is annoying busy work that needs to be done. I guess the secret is to want the finished product enough.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

National Novel Writing Month

For those who might be unaware, November is National Novel Writing Month. All across the US (and possibly beyond) people take the Nanowrimo challenge to write 50,000 words in one month. There is no prize beyond bragging rights, but it’s fun.

There’s even  a website (Google Nanowrimo to find it – I’d provide the link but I don’t have Internet here on the bus) where you can enter and update your word count, post sample pages, and discuss the experience on user forums. It’s hosted by the same folks who did the scriptwriting challenge I took last April.

I love Nanowrimo. But I’m not doing it this year.

First, I’ve done it more than once – I know that I can. My first novel, Fever Jenny, grew from a Nanowrimo project.

But I haven’t liked my results from the last few Novembers. I can get the word count, but the stories don’t add up. I find myself forcing the story ahead to reach the exciting, easy-to-write, high word count scenes, absolutely killing any sense of pacing. I find myself collecting large unfinished pieces with no promise of resolution.

And I find myself not doing the follow-up work when November ends.

So this is my plan for this November. First, I’m going to finish that dratted April project (which I should be able to do in about a week, if I actually commit myself to doing the work). Then I’m going to take the half-finished story from last November (which actually only reached about 48,000 words) and fill in the missing pieces, so that it’s done right. And maybe even finish it.

But I’m not going to obsess over the word count.

So November is still my month for challenging myself. For writing and learning from the doing of it. 

Oh, and I’ll keep with the blogging, too, so you know how I’m doing.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Please Read Responsibly

There’s been a lot of discussion on the prevalence of violence in our entertainment media and its possible impact on our culture. 

Now me, I’m an escapist. My entertainment choices don’t run toward realistic thoughtful drama. I like the occasional big explosion.

I also have an interest in genre conventions. And I tend to value them over strict realism.

So I’m probably not the right person to discuss responsible media. As an escapist, I learned early on to not consider my entertainments real (a healthy lesson, I’m thinking).  And as genre guy, I totally expect depictions of violence (and sex and government and other real world things) to vary in weight and consequence depending on the material I’m watching.

I wonder some times if the responsibility in responsible media should be approached from the other side – maybe we need to educate more responsible, intelligent readers and viewers.

Still, writers do need to take a share, too.  I once saw Neil Gaiman speak at a convention about agreeing to write Neverwhere for the BBC. One thing he said was that he didn’t want to be responsible for making homelessness (a central element of the story) look cool.

That’s sensible and reasonable and makes for a better story anyway. So maybe the lesson is to write sensibly. 

So, a parting thought: They say the pen is mightier than the sword, but we license guns and give access to social media sites away for free. Scary, huh?

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

The Scary Thing about Scriptwriting

The scary thing about script writing is this:  The work has to stand up to actors. 

And you know how actors are.  They’ll do things to your words.  They’ll take them places you’re not sure they are ready to go.  And your words, like ungrateful children, will happily go along for the ride.

Seriously, you have to be able to give the script away and watch others interpret your words.  Their interpretations will not be based on your intentions or on how the words sounded in your head.  What’s on the paper has to be good enough, on its own.

Of course, this is also the glorious thing about scriptwriting.  Because if the words are good, actors and directors will add a layer of their own to them, adding nuances that make the work even better.  Give the same words to two different actors and get two different values.  At least two.

In a way, I suppose it is true for novels and stories as well.  The meaning and the value of the work does not end with the author’s intentions, or even with the author’s words.  The reader brings something to the table as well.  But it’s really visible with scripts.

And really fun.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Respect the Brain

A simple blog today, with short and simple advice.

Sometimes I find my mind wandering -- daydreams, stories, flights of fancy. I might be thinking of my next project or I might just be off on a tangent.

Something similar sometimes happens when I’m writing. The next sentence doesn’t turn out to be what I first intended. The plots and characters and dialogue go off in unexpected directions.

If this happens to you, my advice is to let it.  Let your daydreams fly, to whatever extent your current obligations and duties allow.

The reason is simple. You can always edit later, you can always rewrite and even delete if you need to, but you will never get this exact same information out of  your brain again.  If your creativity is engaged, if your mind is doing the work for you, take full advantage.

I’ve tried coming back to it later.  Believe me, I’ve tried. It’s never as good. If I knew what caused these bouts of creativity, I’d have a lot more money than I do now.

But I know enough to respect them when they occur.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Off the Map

We’ve been having intermittent power outages in the basement where I live. We also have for a pet a curious breed of Siamese Vomiting Cat.  As a consequence of these two facts, I spent part of my morning cleaning up cat barf by candlelight. And I’m thinking, “Yep. This is my life.”

Some stories start with a bang. Others take time to establish whatever passes for ordinary life in the protagonist’s world before they go off the map. Another common trick is to start with a prologue where someone other than the protagonist gets the bang  and then cut to establishing the ordinary world. But in most cases, that world does get established fairly early on.

Stories, the conventional wisdom tells us, are based on conflict. But it can’t just be any old conflict. It has to be sufficiently important conflict. One measure of conflict is how much it takes the character outside of his or her ordinary life.

In big epic stories, travel is often a metaphor for this internal journey – Frodo going from the comforts of the Shire to the fires of Mount Doom, Indiana Jones leaving a nice, safe university position to chase over the rooftops of Cairo – but a person can just as easily face a life-altering decision at home. If the decision is big enough, day-to-day affairs like cleaning up after the cat become hazy and far away.

Another way of looking at it is to consider what’s at stake. In any conflict situation, the protagonist can take action and succeed, take action and fail, or not take action at all. What are the consequences? The stakes have to be real and significant beyond the daily trials of our ordinary lives. In order to be satisfying, the conflicts can’t have an easy solution, either.

And one more thing: They have to be personal. Superman may spend a lot of time saving the world, but the good writers like to remind us occasionally that if he fails he doesn’t just lose a set of continents and oceans. He loses Metropolis.  He loses Lois. And that’s why even Superman has an ordinary life.

Got to have the map before you can go off it.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Genre and Convention

There is a notion about genre that it exists mostly for the convenience of bookstores.  The idea is that they can sell books by grouping them – if you liked that last book, you’ll probably look for more like it.

The underlying premise to this notion is that authors should not feel constrained to fit their stories into tiny boxes that exist merely as a shelving aid.

There is also the problem of defining genres (and the endless sub-genres they seem to spawn). Once, at a convention, I watc hed two intelligent people have a frustrating discussion because neither seemed to realize that they each defined Magical Realism differently.

While I certainly agree that stories should be free to be whatever they need to be, I think genre conventions can be a useful tool to the writer. They create expectations in the audience that the author can fulfill or playful deny.

I recently saw a pair of interesting genre movies. One was a superhero film and one was a gritty, mean streets detective story (probably film noir, but I don’t want to argue about exactly what that term means). Each had a twist – the superhero movie (Silver Hawk, starring Michelle Yeoh) was also a kung fu movie. The detective movie (Brick) was set in a high school with all the major parts being teenagers.

The thing is, neither of these movies was a parody. There were some humorous moments in both films derived from the whole odd mix-and-match, but ultimately each film succeeded by meeting the conventions of its chosen genre.

Secret identities, evil villain with henchmen and a lair, a dastardly plot involving orbital mind control lasers? Check.  A hard and lonely man with a shady past, doing the best he can in a cruel world? Check.

I think maybe genres have been built up because something they are doing works. Like any other author’s tool, they can be used, and used well, when it suits the story.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

At the Alpha and Omega

One of the things I’ve learned performing as a live storyteller is to always have strong first and last lines.  The first line says, hey there, pay attention, this is something worth listening to.  The last line gives a final impression and signals the close of the piece.

It’s true in writing, as well.  Of course, novelists can afford to think in terms of strong first paragraphs, but the principle is the same.  And frankly, a strong first sentence is still even better. Picture your reader in a bookstore, trying to decide if this is something worth reading.  The sooner the hook catches them, the better.

So what’s a good opening? There is no definitive answer. I would suggest that is should promise something more. Whether it introduces an interesting situation, a character, or even a tone of voice, it should suggest that things only get more interesting from here.

As an aside, the I think the most daring thing I ever sent to a publisher was the first line of my second novel: “Welcome to my great unpublished manuscript.” I mean, think of it from the point of view of the publisher.  Fortunately, it was not an unsolicited submission.

Endings are another kettle of fish. I like my ending to leave a lasting impression. Once again, it goes back to my live performance experience. People don’t remember all the words of the story, only the gist of it. But they are likely to remember the end, and the feelings it created. It would be interesting to study just the first and last lines of books – I suspect that not all authors share my approach.

To break in my new netbook, I wrote a short radio play for two voices entitled The Case of the Girl who Lost Everything. It, like this blog, was written entirely on the bus going to and from work.  The first line is, “They say there are a million stories in the naked city, so stop me if you’ve heard this one.”

And it ends, like this blog, with the line, “I stayed at the ruin that was her house, gazing longingly up at the stars.”

Monday, October 4, 2010

Blogging on the Bus

Okay, past time I got back on the blogging train. Sorry it’s been so long since my last post. See, I’ve been unemployed for a while, and now suddenly I’m not.  More than that, for the past several years, when I’ve been employed, I’ve worked from home.  Now I’m commuting again.

I kinda’ like it, actually. Gets me out of the house. It also focuses my time. Now I’m actually thinking ahead – when will I pay the bills, when do I make this important phone call, meet that obligation, whatever.

And one of the questions in the background is – when will I write?

In related news, I got a new toy with the part of the birthday money that isn’t going to pay down the credit card bill.  It’s a netbook.  It looks like a laptop for halflings. Cute little thing.

And I will use it to write on the bus. So I’ll be blogging again, among other projects. I need to get the movie script software on it so I can finish revising my movie project (see any of my posts from last April for more details). I’m also hashing out a radio play for two voices, just for the fun of it. And hey, Nanowrimo is coming up again, too.

I don’t know if this new job will ultimately make life better. I hope so. But it’s certainly made things busy. But when things need to get done, sometimes a busy person is a better bet than someone with all the time in the world.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Where do I even begin…?

Nothing is more daunting to a writer than a blank page. But before you start writing, you need to know what you want to write about. So I was thinking about how I conceptualize my stories.

Most of the time I work in this order: character, setting, plot, theme. I should mention, however, that these are not entirely discrete units. The act of creation is actually very messy.

I start with character because it provides the most points of interest to me. Character, as I think of it, implies a lot of the other points. If I contemplate a dragonslayer who wants to retire and become a ballerina, for example, what does that tell me about setting, plot, and theme?

Well, to start with, we have a setting that has both dragons and ballet. Dragon stories are often set in medieval times, but ballet began sometime in the Renaissance, giving me some interesting dissonance to work with.

For plot, I immediately begin looking for conflicts to my characters stated goal. What are the impediments to retiring from a dangerous and necessary job? What are the challenges in convincing people to accept someone as a dancer?

I usually discover thematic elements as I work. It feels a little like uncovering what was already there. In this case, I suspect I’d be exploring questions of identity and the freedom to choose what to do with one’s life.  Possibly contrast the values of violence and art and parallel the discipline required to do either well.

Your mileage may vary. Perhaps contemplating what the world of dance might be like in a setting with dragons would be your starting inspiration. Or perhaps you have a theme you want to explore.

Writing, like most arts, is judged on the finished product, rather than the process. So whatever works to start your story.  Just be sure you do actually start.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

A Few Practical Concerns

My computer’s power supply fried itself. It was nice and dramatic – there were sparks and smoke. It’s in the shop and I don’t yet know if I still have that D&D-style movie script that I started last April.

So today’s lesson is create back-ups.  Back things up on disk, or on servers, or network them to other computers. The hard drive is not enough.

More of a practical lesson, I admit, than my usual ruminations. But clearly one worth mentioning. Something I did regularly when I was working, but obviously I got complacent at home.

On another practical note, it looks like I will be returning to the  daily grind of regular employment. This may impact the scheduling of my blog posts, but I promise to work something out.

As with the hard drive, we’ll know more next week.

Wish me luck!

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Taming Ideas

I’ve been to a lot of writing conventions and read a number of books on writing. One question that always seems to come up eventually is – Where do you get your ideas?

And usually the answer is a bit sarcastic. Writers claim to get their ideas from inside cereal boxes or from a certain post office box in Schenectady. The reason for the sarcasm is because it’s the wrong question. (And, I suspect, because there isn’t an answer. Does anyone really know how our minds work?)

The right question, they’ll happily tell you, is what do you do with your ideas? The work comes in taking an idea and turning it into a story.

I have lots of ideas. Everyone does. I may have ideas about water-breathing people helping clean up a flooded city, or two clever librarians meeting and falling in love, or a quaint little post-apocalyptic coffee shop – but what do I need to sell any of these ideas to a reader?

I need these ideas, and the world’s they suggest, to to be explored by characters. Good characters with motivations and conflicts. And there should probably be a plot or two involving the characters dealing with the conflicts.

Think of a fictional character that you like. Captain Kirk, Indiana Jones, Sam Seaborn, Superman, George Smiley, Gregory House, Captain Ahab, King Lear, The Little Mermaid, Gilgamesh, Silver John, Doc Savage, anybody. You could easily write an interesting paragraph, maybe two, describing the qualities of your chosen character.

But I doubt anyone who read that paragraph would ask for more. We remember these heroes because of their stories. So I guess the real question is: How do you craft your stories?

And that, at least, we can discuss sensibly.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Making Dinner Before Breakfast

I don’t usually cook first thing in the morning. Today, however, that’s exactly what I did. When you plan to run the crock pot for eight hours, well, I guess it’s an early start or a late dinner.

I’m an okay cook if I have a recipe. I can follow a formula. Today, however, I’m experimenting with some spices a friend suggested. These little deviations from the book usually lead to my biggest successes in the kitchen. And my biggest failures.

The best cooks, of course, are those that have done this for years and know why things are on the recipe and how changing the recipe will work and what changes to avoid. But you don’t get there by being afraid to experiment.

Now, gentle reader, I assume you are not an idiot and that you have already gotten the metaphor. I’ve spent several of the last posts discussing structures and formulae. I wanted to take a moment to remind us all that writing strictly by formula is often passable but generally falls short of genius.

If you know the formula/structure/recipe when you start, you have an advantage. But becoming a better writer, like becoming a better cook (or a better anything, really) requires a type of learning and discovery that only comes from practice.

Take risks, experiment, get advice from people you trust, and have fun with it. Throw your failures in the recycle bin. If you keep at it, people will remember your successes.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Story and Structure, Part Three

‘Cause there had to be three, right? Powerful number, three.

I had a few more thoughts about the Rule of Three since my last post. One obvious and easy-to-use pattern is to have the first two things be not quite what is needed. This is too hard, this is too soft. The third, as Goldilocks will tell you, is just right.

Three is also the minimum number you can have to establish a group and an outsider. How many fairy tale princes have two older brothers? And poor Cinderella, with her two wicked step-sisters.

I’d like to wrap this series up by swinging back around to story structure. Let’s see if I can do it in three parts.

ONE: Introduce, at a minimum, a character and a goal to be achieved or a problem to overcome. Even better if you can provide a setting as well.  Little Red needs to get to Granny’s house, but the path leads through the dark and dangerous woods.

TWO: The conflict must be dealt with. The woods must be entered. This is a good place to insert the Rule of Three. The soldier on the road is given a magic bag, a seeing glass, and a violin, each of which will be necessary to escape the ogre.

THREE: Resolve the conflict. Using the Rule of Three keeps the resolution from being too simple (and hopefully from being too complex as well). After dancing each night with the Prince in her three gowns – one silver like the moon, one blue as the night sky, and one gold as the sun – the Orphan Princess finds true love.

And that’s the sort of thing I thought about when I needed to craft a tale on the fly.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Story and Structure, Part Two

Once, back in the ancient days, there was a poor cobbler’s son, who wanted nothing so much in all the world as to marry the baker’s daughter and live a quiet life.

Still talking about the tricks I used in creating a satisfying story on the fly. Today I want to talk about stylistic language, the Rule of Three, and story structure.

Stylistic language is just setting and keeping a tone of voice that suits the tale. One of my personal rules when I was performing as a storyteller was never start with “Once Upon a Time.” To me, that phrase is reserved for either (a) working with very small children, or (b) making fun of fairy tales and parodying them.

So at the very beginning of the story, I had to make a decision that helped set the tone of voice. And I kept a number of stock beginning phrases available to select from.

The other interesting thing in the example above is that contains a lot of compressed information. A good rule in performing is to say what you need to say and then shut up. My intro above  introduces in one sentence a setting reference (back in ancient days/fairy tale), a hero (poor cobbler’s son,) and the goal that must be met for the story to end happily (marry the baker’s daughter). 

Important side note: The goal can change if the character grows and changes. The story can end happily if he learns that the baker’s daughter is not really for him and he marries someone else. But it’s easier to simply meet the conditions set at the beginning.

So in order to hang a story on these bare bones, the hero needs to overcome an obstacle between him and his goal.

And this is where the Rule of Three comes in. Three is a measure of complexity. One is simple and unsatisfying. So he asked for her hand in marriage and she said yes. End of story. Yawn. Two is not quite enough to clearly establish a pattern. Four is more than we need.

So the hero must do three things. Or maybe one complex thing with the help of three friends or allies. Or three kindnesses he does to strangers along the way get him the three tools he needs to succeed.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Story and Structure, Part One

I used to do this trick where I’d tell a story, totally impromptu, making it up as I go along. I’d do this performing to a live audience. The general consensus from the feedback I got is that, over time, I got fairly good at it. I haven’t tried it in years, mind, so I don’t know if I still have the knack.

But I’ve been thinking recently about how I did it. I relied on a number of tricks – stylistic language, the rule of three, creative repetition, and a basic, even formulaic, idea of story structure.

I’m going to start with that last one first, because it is actually the most important one for writing. The others are mostly embellishments, so we’ll get to them later.

Usually, in impromptu work, the performer is given a topic or challenge. This does two things: first, it keeps the performer from just telling some already memorized work and second, it gives the performer a starting point. I tended to work from three things, often a character, a place, and an item, which I asked the audience to provide.

So, basic story structure: We start with a hero (character) in an established situation (place) who has something that he or she needs to do (perhaps acquiring or delivering an item). The necessary conflict is generated when doing the necessary thing doesn’t turn out to be easy.

The story is resolved when the hero succeeds. How satisfying the story is depends on how cleverly and how easily the character succeeds.

And that’s where the rule of three comes in, which I’ll explain next time.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

The Assumption of Adventuring

I like my action/adventure stories. Indiana Jones, Lord of the Rings, superheroes, all that. But the average citizen, of course, is not an adventurer. In fact, adventuring is an odd thing to do.

Part of the classic Hero’s Journey formula is the Call to Arms – the point when the protagonist is given the incentive to leave the ordinary world and venture out into the extraordinary one. There has to be a reason for Luke Skywalker to leave the farm.

But apparently not always. I was watching an old 1970’s Sinbad movie the other day (Ray Harryhausen!) and I noticed that adventuring was just pretty much what Sinbad did. It was assumed from the beginning.

Remember the first Indiana Jones film? We see Indy the Adventurer first – dodging traps and running from hostile natives. If the movie started with Professor Jones in his classroom, the penchant for whips and leather would seem a lot odder. We’d want to know how this tweedy teacher got to be a two-fisted action hero type in his off hours. By establishing his hero identity first, the film neatly skipped over the question of how he is drawn into the adventuring life.

My point? I guess it is about predicting what your audience will accept. Since adventuring is not a normal profession, it raises questions. The classic formula provides one answer, but not the only answer.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Practice makes…

It occurs to me that just about every book I’ve ever read about the craft of writing invariably includes the advice, “Write. Just write. Just do it.” It’s a matter of discipline. Good intentions don’t write stories. Writers write stories.

I feel a little bit of the hypocrite here because I’m struggling with the final revisions of my April project script and more often then not I’m not doing my struggling at the keyboard.

But the advice is still good for another reason beyond getting the work done. Practice works. When learning a physical skill, the repetitive motions you make when you practice actually help the brain make the connections needed to perform those motions faster and more consistently.

I believe that practicing writing makes writing better, too. When you start catching the same mistakes and stop making them. When you decide to experiment with  italics. When you realize that you’ve developed a unique voice for your lead character.

And those are just the quantifiable bits. The cool stuff about writing is that you sometime produce stuff you didn’t even know you had in you. The act of writing spurs creativity, stimulates ideas.

I once wrote a play where one of the characters expressed an idea I’ve had for some time. A deep, thoughtful, insightful idea about the human condition. And then, in the very next line, the other character onstage called the idea crap and started a counter argument.

I didn’t expect that. Here I am with my grand idea, and suddenly I’m writing the opposition paper against it. It was great. Hopefully, it made the play better, too.

So if you want to be a writer, write.  Write for discipline, for getting stuff done. Write for practice, to develop your skills. Write to inspire yourself, to discover the hidden depths of your own ideas. Just write.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go off and start taking my own advice.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Decision Points

Last time I wrote about the decisions authors make detailing their characters. This time, I’d like to consider the decisions made by the characters themselves.

Stories are built on the actions of characters, and the making of decisions is a core action. Unless a character is somehow acting against his or her will, all character actions inherently include the decision to act.

A great deal of dramatic power can rest on a single decision point. Choosing between two or more marriage proposals, for example. Or a pregnant woman choosing whether to have a surgery that will help her but risk her unborn child. Choosing whether to kill an enemy or show mercy. Whether to attend a funeral where one is unwelcome, because the dead must be honored.

For a choice to have dramatic power, it has to be difficult. Choosing between two bad options, or between two good but mutually exclusive options, or choosing between risks. Easy choices don’t count.

And showing the character making the decision also ties him or her to any consequences that follow. Even the unintended ones.

Character can also be revealed in the decision making process. Why choose one way and not the other? The author can spend paragraphs expounding on motivation, or can simply let the choice stand for itself.

Authors have a lot of decisions to make. Sometimes, so do their characters.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Details, details...

Today’s question: How soon do you reveal character details? When, in your novel or story, does your character get described?

To answer that question, I’d like to consider another. What does an undescribed character look like? Do we as readers just assume the character is some standard, generic person? Do we assume they are like us, our age, our skin color? Do we leave a blank space for them, holding off picturing them fully until we get the necessary data?

Certain traits should be revealed early, I think. It is significant, for example, if the character is a child. The world treats children differently and their capabilities are different. And, as a general rule, you don’t want to surprise the reader by revealing critical information about the character too late in the game.

Unless, of course, that is precisely what you intend to do. A particularly subversive example is Ursula K. Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea. At home among his people, the title character Ged is just another person. It is only three chapters into the book, when he travels to the Isle of Roke, that the narrative happens to mention that Ged had the red-brown skin of “most folk of the Archipelago.”

You have to remember that the book was written in 1968. Starting off with the revelation that most of the characters had brown skin could well have, at that time, made it a book about brown-skinned characters. But it’s not. It’s a book about wizards. It wouldn’t really change anything if they were green.

Which brings up another point -- what is necessary data about a character and what is not? Skin color is very relevant if you are writing a story about the Watts Riots, but might not be important in a futuristic or fantasy setting. A character’s gender is usually revealed the first time a pronoun is used for them, but I’ve seen books where the author has cleverly avoided pronouns all together to conceal this information. The character’s age usually impacts their place in society, but which is important -- the societal status, or the age?

As usual, bringing the questions up for consideration is more interesting then finding any one perfect answer. After all, the answers change with the needs of the story.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

It’s a Process

Where do you write? And, perhaps as importantly, how? I know some writers work longhand, using pencil and paper. This gives the nice advantage of being able to work anywhere.

I prefer to work in electronic media. Usually this means on a computer, although portions of my first novel were composed on a Palm Pilot.

My personal twisted psychology of the writing experience goes something like this: I know I’ll need to rewrite later, but I have to believe while I’m writing that I’m doing the best I can. So I write like I don’t intend revisions. Writing by hand will only need to be retyped later, so I never bring my A game when writing that way.

I do, however, use pen and paper for notes and outlines. I sometimes use a notepad as a sounding board for in a brainstorming session, listing ideas so that I can connect them, compare them, and chose among them.

There is a reason I opened this post with questions. The writing process I am describing is merely how it works for me. Other writers I know work very differently.

In learning to write, I had to pay attention to what worked for me. I advise others to do the same. Question yourself. Learn what works for you.

Which of course leads us back to that old writers’ conundrum: The best way to learn to write is to write.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Worked on a Movie…

Today is Wednesday. I normally post on Tuesdays. Sorry ‘bout the delay, but I spent the last two days working on a film set.

Not as glamorous as it sounds, I’m afraid. I was an extra on a small (probably less than 20 minute) historical piece of the kind they show in museum displays. It was about the Klondike Gold Rush. It’s likely I will either be lost on the cutting room floor or be visible only as third hat on the left.

But it was an interesting experience.

The extras were given general instruction and left to build their own stage business. I was amused to note how much went on that could not be credited to the show’s writers.

The visuals – how the scenes were constructed, the camera angles used, the timing, were all created on the spot. More than once I was asked to stand in a certain location just so I would block something modern from the view of the camera.

I know there was a script and there were principal characters and a story. They just were not in evidence on the days that I was there.

I think writing for film must be like throwing a pebble into a pond but only watching where the ripples reach the shoreline. There script has to be there first, the ideas and the characters and the plot – but the writer must expect a certain distance between the his or her work and the finished product. We see only ripples, not the stone.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

A Certain Antagonism

Heroes tend to have villains. And the more the villain is thematically or stylistically linked to the hero, the stronger the story is.

One classic trick is to have the villain be just like the hero, only evil. Whatever advantages the hero has, whatever makes him or her special – this villain has them too. Holmes has his Moriarty, someone smart enough to challenge even the great detective. The Doctor has the Master, another Time Lord with a TARDIS and a screwdriver of his own. The trick is older than the popular examples I’m using, of course. MacBeth has his MacDuff, after all.

And then there is the archenemy who goes the opposite route, literally. The Joker is the classic example, here. Everything Batman is not: colorful instead of somber, crazy and unpredictable instead of rational and methodical, and, of course, murderous.

Both these villain types serve a double function in the story. They not only provide a high level of challenge even to their competent protagonists, but they also serve as foils – characters that the illustrate something about the nature of the protagonists.

While I tend to favor adventure fiction, these techniques are hardly exclusive to genre. A romantic rival could just as easily tell us something by being everything the romance protagonist is not. In the classic French Harlequinade, Columbine’s rivals, Harlequin and Pierrot have been described as sunlight and moonlight, laughter and sorrow.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

The Moment of Doom

So I’m rewriting my April Project D&D movie script (see any of my posts from April for more info). Now as I noted before, I’m rewriting to establish stakes for the hero’s quest, to make his success or failure more meaningful to the audience.

Only, now that I’m rewriting, I’ve hit another snag. I am questioning now whether I need a moment where things go really bad, where the hero fails and the quest seems impossible.

It’s not that there are no conflicts. But the pattern is something like: monster attacks, heroes find a way to beat monster, heroes move on to next monster. Rather like the source material, actually. And I have some personality conflicts along the way as well, just to add a little spice.

But the heroes are never captured, hope is never lost, the fellowship of the core team is never truly tested. And I’m afraid the quest will seem too easy without such a moment, too unsatisfyingly simple.

I’ve not followed any of the movie formulae – this isn’t meant to be the classic three-act pattern or the Hero’s Journey – but now I find I’m questioning whether I am missing a fairly classic element. What I’m looking for here is the Descent into the Underworld.

So I guess I’ve got a bit more rewriting to do before we can all have that script-reading party.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

The Movie Serial Aside

I have, through some quirk of random shopping, acquired a 1943 movie serial featuring Batman.

I’ve watched about half of it so far. As I expected, it requires a mind shift to get around the 1940’s production values and limitations. What caught me more by surprise was the propaganda – the fighting American, wartime, unapologetically anti-Japanese jingoism.

But what really threw me was the realization that the hero wasn’t really quite Batman yet. Sure, he has the cave and the costume and the faithful butler, but he comes across like a generic masked avenger. He could just as easily be the Green Hornet or the Grey Ghost.

He doesn’t have the brooding, driven personality. He isn’t haunted by the death of his parents. He isn’t overly brilliant or competent. He's just a rich playboy with an odd hobby.

The audience (presumably) follows him for the adventure and the sly nods when someone talks to Bruce about the mysterious Batman. They don’t need the backstory because they know his type. Everyone is the serial so far is a type rather than a character (although Alfred, played for comedy relief, comes close).

Not really sure what my point is, except maybe this: It’s odd to watch a serviceable story with no real character depth. The story has thugs and a mastermind and a damsel-in-distress, along with a notable hero and sidekick, all dutifully playing their roles.

But it would be better if it had Batman in it.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Back in the Saddle Again

I am seriously rewriting the second half of my script. While I successfully reached both my 100 page goal and the end of my story within April, I have found a significant problem in my story.

The quest has no stakes.

I’ve set up that my hero, Jon Warder, is going on what may well be a fool’s quest as a point of honor, because there is nothing else he can do for the people for whom he feels responsible. I like that. It’s nifty.

But if he should fail in his quest? Nothing changes.  And if he should succeed? Well, he does succeed, of course, and it turns out to be very important, but at the time he takes the quest, we don’t know why it’s important. For most of the movie, it looks like if he succeeds, nothing changes.

So why should the audience care if he fails?

When laying out plots, nothing changes is the kiss of death.

I have two options. I can invest the viewer more in Jon’s honor, showing that he takes some great, personal, internal loss if he fails. Or I can establish real, physical consequences to the quest. They already exist, I just have to find a way to share them with the audience sooner.

Ideally, I should do both of these things.

The problem is that I did a good job tying the story together. One scene logically follows the next. There is pacing and flow. So I’m going to have to break it before I can fix it.

That’s the way it goes sometimes.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Anticipating Explosions

The bomb wants to explode.

I don’t know where I first heard that, but it’s a great phrase. Generally speaking, if you see a bomb in a movie, it’s going to go off. That is its function, after all.

When something big and exciting, like an explosion, becomes possible in a story, the only satisfying way to have it not happen is to replace the event with something equally dramatic and powerful. This is why, when bombs are defused in action movies, our hero is always deciding between the blue wire and the red wire with only three seconds left on the clock.

The impending event doesn’t have to be an explosion, of course. It can be a divorce, a confession, a sex scene, whatever. But once the possibility of drama and excitement is raised, anticipation sets in. The reader/audience wants (or dreads) the fulfillment of that possibility.

There is a famous example from Hitchcock, defining the difference between shock and suspense. Two people walk into a room and a bomb goes off without warning. The audience is shocked for a moment. Two people walk into a room where the audience knows there is a bomb and have an extended conversation while the counter slowly ticks down… Now you have suspense.

Amusingly, striptease works on the same principle. The possibility, the anticipation, and what, in the end, does or does not get delivered.

There is a Jackie Chan fight scene on an adhesive-covered treadmill in a glue factory. In order to move, the fighters have to remove their shoes. When someone is knocked down, he has to take off his pants to stand back up. They fight standing on abandoned articles of clothing. The longer they fight, the less they end up wearing.

Once the pattern is established, Jackie’s beautiful female assistant, an Indian woman wearing little more than a long flowing sari, jumps up on the treadmill…

Admit it – aren’t you curious how the fight scene ends?

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Creativity Challenges

So I spent the last month working on a Dungeon’s & Dragons-style screenplay (see any of my blog posts from April 2010).

One of the things that was helpful is that I’ve spent the idle moment, here and there, wondering what I would do with a D&D movie. Some of the stuff I was certain I would include didn’t fit the story and ended up on the cutting room floor. But I already had ideas about what kind of of lead character I wanted, where I wanted the tale to start, that kind of thing.

I keep in the back of my mind a number of writing challenges that I may never get to do. I know what I would do if suddenly given access to the Star Wars franchise, for example. Or given an assignment to write a superhero movie. Or hired to write a bad late-night cable flick. Or author the next hot urban fantasy detective novel. It’s fun to think about.

These are mere idle fancies, of course, but they have their purpose. They exercise some interesting muscles in the creative brain. To begin with, they not only challenge me with what I might do, but with how I might do it right.

When I contemplate doing a Star Wars story, for example, I don’t just give myself license to run amok with the established canon. I have to think about what are the elements common to Star Wars stories? What makes them work, what do their fans want?

These idle fantasies incorporate the careful study of existing material, giving me a way to think through how a given franchise or genre works and where it breaks down.

Because if I were to write a generic space opera story that could be shoehorned into to either Star Wars or Star Trek, I’m doing it wrong.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

The Jigsaw

Longer works – novels, movies, stage plays – are composed of multiple scenes. I suppose you could have a single long scene that included everything, but it would have to be a really good scene.

Changing scenes – that is, occasionally changing characters, locations, and points in time, keeps things interesting. It also resembles life. If we’re not in prison, most of us seek changes of surroundings, at least now and then.

The scenes add up to a story. They are like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. No one scene gives the whole of the picture, but each scene contains information necessary to complete the image. And like a puzzle, the pieces all have to be assembled in the proper order.

Where the analogy breaks down, however, is that the author not only assembles the puzzle, but also crafts each individual piece. And unlike jigsaw makers, storycrafters don’t start with a complete picture and then reduce it to components. Just the opposite, in my experience.

Imagine doing a jigsaw puzzle where, when you saw a piece was missing, it was your responsibility to make it. And each piece you make changes the final picture. And you can make them out of sequence, but they have to all fit in place when you are done. (You might have a few waste pieces left over that get thrown away because they don’t fit like you thought they would.)

If I really wanted to stretch the analogy, I could talk about how the events of the scene form the shape of the jigsaw piece while tone and theme are its colors. How the shapes lock the puzzle together while the colors work to make it pleasing.

But really, it’s enough for now just to contemplate how the story is built in our minds, one point at a time, adding up into a complete whole.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

How it Ends

It’s April 29. For those of you in the audience that have not been following along at home, here’s the story: I signed up for the Script Frenzy challenge ( to write a 100 page script in the month of April.

I took as my topic a fantasy screenplay with the intent of writing a better Dungeons and Dragons style movie than the actual D&D movie that hit the theaters. I like attainable goals.

Yesterday, I finished the script. I ran the formatting utility that set it into standard screenplay format. It was exactly 99 pages.

Now if the story is good and tight and complete at  99 pages, then that would be the place to stop. But I know this is only a first draft.

So I went back over it, thinking about what I could do better. One of the things that was weak was the character development arc for my lead. He started out strong and skilled and honorable. I didn’t want a story in which he got worse. That left the question about how he was going to change or improve. Who goes on a quest in order to stay exactly the same?

Now the major thing that happens over the course of the movie is that our team of heroes is assembled. When I wrote the end, I had them laughing and joking together, being friends.

I looked back at the very start of my script, which I wrote on April 2.  I had established my hero, Jon Warder, and his home village, but I hadn’t paid much attention to whether he had any real friends there.

So I went back, 25 days later, and rewrote the opening to show a distance between Jon and the farmers under his care. To show that he didn’t really have friends.

Then I rewrote the ending to make the final scene with the laughing and joking a little stronger.

And now Jon at least has something he didn’t have before his quest started. It sounds backwards and contrived when I explain it this way, but remember, the audience only sees it in the correct order, with the problem before the solution.

The result?


101 pages.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

No Worries

It’s the last week in April. As I write this, I have about 20 more pages to go to reach the 100 page deadline. I have no clue whether reaching that goal will bring me to the end of my storyline or not. Not sure what I’ll do if it ends at only 93 pages. Start the rewrite, I guess.

I hope my little experiment has worked for you, my readers. After several months of blogging randomly about the craft of writing fiction, it’s been good for me to have a single project to focus on. Helps me find new things to blog about.

I had forgotten, for example, how much I worry when I write. On this particular project, I have worried –

-- that my characters talk too much, that I am not trusting the actors to convey the meaning without too much explication, that I am not trusting my audience to keep up.
-- that my scenes are too cliché, too much things we’ve seen before.

-- that there isn’t enough magic, that I’m providing a fantasy world that is too ordinary and plain, and not taking advantage of the movie format to push for grand spectacle.

-- that there aren’t enough explosions. Currently, there aren’t any explosions. But really, I’m using explosions as a metaphor for big, screen-filling moments of pure awesome.

-- that my characters are not growing and changing through the movie – this is a tricky one because I chose not to start with the inexperienced hero archetype.

-- that my characters aren’t likeable enough, or relatable enough, and that may lead hero, particularly, is too bland.

So you gotta’ be asking – does this guy ever just shut up and write? And that is, of course, the answer. It’s a lot easier to decide if a scene is good, bad but fixable, or ready for the recycle bin if the scene actually gets written. Same with a character, a bit of dialogue, or a plot point.

It’s okay to worry. It probably even results in a better product.

But only if I don’t let it stop me from writing.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

The Protagonist Problem

Each new writing project brings new learning opportunities. My April movie project has brought me a challenge I never thought of before (although a little research shows that other screenwriters have noticed it). The challenge is not overshadowing my lead with more interesting secondary characters.

In my novels I focus on a single, significant hero. No problem there. In my stage plays I have a small cast of characters who are more-or-less given equal weight (not a bad formula for the stage). But for my movie, as I noted in an earlier post, I have an ensemble supporting a lead hero.

To use an extreme example, in the Star Trek movies, the invariably human captains have to compete with the all the aliens and psychics and shapechangers.

In my case, my lead competes with a mysterious thief, a big surly guy, and a know-it-all story-chasing bard. Jon Warder is pretty much the straight man to all these comedians.

So here’s what I’m trying: First, I’ve made Jon an extremely competent warrior. This means that yes, that early fight scene I discussed in a previous post will be rewritten. Any time there’s a fight, Jon needs to be ruling it.

Second, the secondary characters cannot be allowed to resolve all the conflicts. This one is a little trickier, because I want to show their special skills and abilities and I want those skills and abilities to be significant to the outcome of the story. And, you know, I only have so many conflicts.

But ultimately, if Jon Warder doesn’t shine as the hero, I’m doing it wrong.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

The Promise of a Pending Monster

In one of my earliest posts on this blog, back when we were discussing writing in the general rather than the specific, I wrote about keeping implied promises to the reader as a means of crafting a satisfying story. One of the points of this whole April D&D scriptwriting experiment is to show my writing process. And I’ve just found a great example to illustrate that point I made, so many moons ago.

I was writing a monster-fightin’ scene and I felt at the time that another such scene would be a good thing. So after all my monsters were all good and killed, I wrote this bit of sterling dialogue:

DARRION: The beasts of the Night Wood are old legends. There have been no accounts of them in living memory.

BARR DRUMHAND: Not really worried about their history.

DARRION: Nor am I. What concerns me is who may have woken them. And what else they may have awoken.

See that last line there? That’s the promise. Either something else has to have woken in the woods, or that line has to go. Sure, Darrion could just be flat-out wrong. Sure, I could have him speak and then have nothing happen. But the the audience will feel something is missing. They know the promise when they hear it.

Of course, when I got to the scene where I thought the next old night terror should show up and I realized there was something even better I could do instead. It’s actually a little confounding. I knew when I wrote the promise that I was doing it to set up a follow-up scene. I like the line (it’s a little hokey, but that fits with both the genre of the movie and the character delivering the line) and I don’t want to cut it. But I’ve overwritten the follow-up scene with something better.

So we’ll just have to see if I can squeeze another monster in there somewhere. My one consolation: If I cut the line, the audience will never know it was there (unless, of course, they read my blog). But, yes, I do fret that much over the implications of a single line. I do it because my audience will.

I guess I just have to figure out when the worst possible time for a monster to attack would be.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

My First Fight

One question I’m struggling with is: What to leave in, what to leave out?

When I wrote plays for the stage, I had the advantage of having acted on a stage. I’ve never been in a movie. For stage plays, I know that if I describe a door I don’t have to assign it a position on the stage. And if I want a character to move to the door, I simply write Bob moves to the door. There will be a director and a set designer who will decide that if the door is upstage left. They can note Bob crosses up left or even B. x UL.

In a movie, I presume, the director and set designer are supplemented with a legion of support staff – cinematographers, location scouts, fight choreographers, stunt coordinators, and so forth.

I know it is easily possible to go overboard with description and detail. And really, if this were a real movie, shouldn’t the art departments, directors, cinematographers, and actors, each bring their own take on the work? But I also know from stage scripts: If it is important to the writer, he better write it down, ‘cause nobody else is going to add it for him.

My first fight scene in the script is a paragraph stating simply who is fighting, that they are competent fighters, and who wins.

My second fight scene, written just shy of half a month later, is full of description. Who uses what weapon, odd things that happen in the fight, sequence and timing...  I wanted the second fight to have a different tone – it’s actually lighter and more comical, less lethal and serious. But the script doesn’t say “this is a comic scene.” It just describes the experienced fighters making fools of the incompetent ones.

So which is right, for a movie script? I really don’t know. I know there is a difference between a screenplay, which I think is what I’m writing, and a shooting script, which has camera angle notes and scene breakdowns.

I suspect I may go back and revise the first fight scene, to see if I can find ways to demonstrate that my fighters are competent, explain why they win. Because if I don’t, I’m essentially leaving it up to someone else to do that work for me.

And because the second fight scene is a lot more fun to read.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

I’m off the map.

Admittedly, it wasn’t that good a map to begin with.

But I still feel lost.

What the map said was this: Jon Warder goes into the big city, sees the plight of the dwarves, feels responsible because he helped lead them here as refugees after a war, and decides to do something about it.  And since this is a fantasy movie, doing something will involve going on a quest and fighting lots of monsters.

I’m nearly half-an-hour into the film (by rough estimate). I’ve got Jon into the city. I’ve shown injustice being done to the dwarves.

But I don’t have the moment.

The moment that stands as a metaphor for all the cumulative injustices that are going on.  The moment when Jon says, enough, no more, I’m doing something about this.

Worse, looking for that moment was leading me on a downward spiral, where each bit of inhumanity was worse than the one before. I mean, I’m writing a D&D knockoff here, not District 9.

So I cheated.  I brought in a quest-giver figure to say, Jon, you must help us.  Take the McGuffin to the Dungeon of Doom. Fight a lot of monsters while you’re at it.

Had to rewrite three pages and I’m still not sure I like it.

But I know a secret: If I can get the plot moving again, I can move on to the end of the story. And once I have the end of the story, then and only then will I have the perspective to adjust the steps that lead up to that end.

This doesn’t end at the end of April. It doesn’t end at 100 pages.  It ends when I say it’s done.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Talkin’ the Talk

Normally, I love writing dialogue.  That’s one of the reasons I like the script format.  Nearly all dialogue, nearly all the time.

So, here I am, 28 pages into my screenplay, and I’m worried about the language my characters are using. I mean, English, obviously. But I’m talking about word choice, sentance structure, tone...

To begin with, I need to avoid sounding modern – I don’t want my medival warriors “downsizing” or “thinking outside the box.” And I want them to discuss themes appropriate to their world – honor and duty and whatnot. All while remaining accessible to the viewer, of course.

But it still not enough.

Personally I blame Joss Whedon.

I want the language of my world to have its own unique tone. Whedon’s shows Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Firefly both presented unreal worlds – a California high school and an outer space frontier, respectively. And each world had its own lingo – new, amusing, engaging, and still fully comprehensible.

Really, this is something I should save for the inevitable re-write, but you know me. I worry.

So, what can I do? Well, here are a few tricks I’m trying:

1. To begin with, I want people to be a little more formal with each other.  One thing I’m trying is the occasional use of full names, especially early in the conversation. So my protagonist is often addressed as “Jon Warder” before the more casual “Jon” is used.

2. I’ve decided, after some experimentation, to include contractions. Not using them does sound more formal, but I do not want to completely lose all casual tone.

3. I’m avoiding the informal tense of the English language (i.e., no “thee,” “thou,” or “thine.”). It will just alienate the viewers.

4. I am constantly re-thinking words and phrases. For example, I’ve switched out the word “money” for “coin.”  Your money’s no good here becomes something like Keep your coin. Same sentiment, different tone.  “Aye” for “yes” is another one.

Results? Still no Whedonesque sparkle.  But I’m working on it.  Let me leave you with a line from the script...

I seek the house of Stonekind.

And the response...

Do you?  Think our royalty are on display then, for any man to gawk and jest?

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Difficulty Leaving Town

So it’s April now, and I’ve actually started writing. But I’ve run into a snag.

I’ve written my beginning, just like I expected to – the tavern, the beastmen, the McGuffin (now called the Star of Mountain’s Keeping) – only I feel I need one more scene before I can get my heroes out of the village and on the next location in my outline.

I’ve had the attack on the village and it had consequences, but I think I need just little more emotional weight behind Jon Warder’s decision to leave. Something to show he’s doing it to protect his people.

I don’t have the write the piece in order, of course – and with a page count deadline I probably won’t have the luxury in any case. But I have to remember to come back to the village for that one last scene.

Another thing on my mind: I was on an interesting panel at Norwescon this year that discussed, among other things, the standardization of Hollywood movie development. Formalized act structures and character development arcs and the things that absolutely must happen by the halfway point of the movie.

And I don’t know a lot of this stuff.

I’ve decided not to worry too much about it. I’ve written four novels and several plays. I have some idea of plot, conflict, and resolution. And all those structures, used poorly, just straitjacket your movie, turn it formulaic.

But I’m also aware that used well they are valuable tools. And as this is my first screenplay, I maybe working without a full toolbox. Well, we’ll just have to see what the results look like.

On the plus side, writing all this down has given me an idea for my missing scene...

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Why Dwarves?

I have a confession to make.  The point to the whole D&D movie project is to show the underlying decisions I make in the writing process.  But that implies a certain sequence, a certain causality.  The story needs X, therefore I make decision Y. It works that way some of the time, but not usually. 

Truth is, I usually start by daydreaming. Knowing what the story needs is a good test for deciding which dreams to keep, perhaps, but it’s rarely the true starting point.

I was picturing my heroes in my head, riding into the big city.  There are a lot of things I could do to make the city memorable, particularly in a fantasy world – overt magic on the streets, multiple humanoid races, maybe even have the city flying or something.

But what comes to my mind instead is a run-down city, where justice is suspect and the law corrupt.  Mean streets.  I don’t know why.

I picture my heroes, both human (or human and very human looking half-elf) riding through a medieval ghetto, surrounded uncomfortably by surly dwarves who look up at them and scowl.  A bit of dialogue comes to my mind:

DARRION: These were proud people once.

JON WARDER: They still are.  And they can hear you.

Going back from there, I can decide whether mean streets suit my story better than flying cities. (I’m thinking they do.)  I can contemplate the question – why dwarves? (Because I can immediately believe the pride and the surliness, for one thing.)

But none of these after-the-fact thoughts are the source of the streets, the ghetto, the dwarves. I don’t mind being thought of as a craftsman – if the story works in the end it will be because I put a lot of hard work into it – but it's important to remember that I start as a dreamer.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Location, Location, Location

I like to have some sense where I’m going when I write but I also like to be open to discovery.  So I tend to have more general outlines than detailed ones. I did a preliminary outline the other day, but because I’m working on a movie instead of a play script, an interesting thing happened.

Instead of breaking down by plot points or significant events, the outline fell into place by locations.  I now have three major sections of the film, which take place in increasingly large and fanciful places.

My outline is far from complete, but it gives me some of the questions that I will need to answer.  In rough form, it looks something like this:

    A. Jon and Bard (Darrion?) in tavern
    B. Beastmen come to the Village, looking for the McGuffin, which Jon once had
    C. Fight against the beastmen
    D. Jon needs to go to the City, Darrion invites himself along
         a. Why does Jon go the City?  He had the McGuffin, but he left it in the City.
         b. If he leaves the Village, hopefully the beastmen will follow, leaving the village safe
         c. I think Darrion just goes along for the adventure
    A. Challenge entering the City – meet the surly guy (Bear?) – the “Little John” scene
    B. Meet the dwarves.  (Why dwarves? could and probably will be a whole ‘nother blog)
          a. Background info on the McGuffin, Jon’s past
           b. Need to take the McGuffin to the dwarven hold of Citadel Stone
    C. Challenge leaving the City – why is it hard to leave? 
    D. With the help of Bear and Tatters, escape the city (Tatters brought in for this purpose?)
        I have only vague ideas what happens here, but I can picture the set...

Note that I have inserted challenges/conflicts at certain points, even though I don’t yet know what exactly they are. There is a danger here that my challenges will feel contrived because, well, they are. I will need to tie them in to the ongoing plot or be willing to drop them. 

The beastmen, by the way, let me have orcs without having orcs.  In a D&D game they could be gnolls, bugbears, overly hairy hobgoblins, or other things.  But having them furry and animalistic is a good visual and keeps them from looking like anything in either the Lord of the Rings or previous D&D movies. And of course, the McGuffin will not be called that.


Note: Next Thursday is the first day of Norwescon, our largest local SF convention, so there might not be a blog for that day.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Adventurers have Parties!

In my last installment, I discussed the design of my hero, Jon Warder. So far, so good, but...

Action movies typically focus on a single hero, or, in the case of a buddy picture, two. Dungeons and Dragons, being a social game, favors adventuring parties. So do I write an ensemble movie or do I drop the D&D convention?

Actually, I get to be a Libra again here and chart a course between the two. When ensemble television shows come to the big screen, they often keep the team but focus on the leader. The Captain (either one) in the Star Trek movies. Mal, in Serenity. Even the real D&D movie had a lead character and a bunch of companions.

Jon Warder is my lead, no question. But he won’t go into adventure alone. Which means I need to make some more characters. Some will no doubt arise in the writing process, but I want to have some idea where I’m going.

I’d like to tell you that I went to the D&D source material for inspiration, planning out my ideal D&D party. But I didn’t. The first thing I decided was that I wanted to accumulate characters through the film, rather than trying to introduce them all at once.

I figure I can introduce one more in the village where the movie begins and the image comes to mind of a musician in the tavern. In D&D, the bard class is the jack-of-all-trades – a little bit of magic, some fighting skills, and a lot of knowledge and lore. Seems useful to me. For one thing, it allows me to have the font of necessary knowledge available without a full-blown Gandalf clone. I picture a slender and elegant man with an easy smile.

I need at least two other party members, met after we leave the village. Since Jon’s past is outside the village, at least one will be someone he already knows. I consider the cliche of encountering someone surly and difficult who turns out to be on the good guy’s side after all. I’m picturing something a bit like meeting Little John for the first time.

So I have Jon Warder, a bard, and a big surly guy. And so far I haven’t actually tapped into any of the characters I’ve made for my own gaming experiences – and I’ve been gaming since the early 1980s. So for fun, I’m going to toss in my very first D&D character, whose name is Tatters.

But she has to make some changes for the movie. The original was a half-elven magic-user/thief with an enchanted talking dagger. The movie version is going to be simplified to the core concept: she’s a street thief. I want the characters – or at least their roles and abilities -- to be quickly understood by the audience. So Tatters will be human, non-magical, and dangerously sneaky.

So far, my D&D party is entirely human, three-quarters male, and has only limited magic. I like that (at least, I like the limited magic part) – but I think I might have the bard turn out to be the half-elf – it suits the little-bit-of-everything concept I have for him.

It’s a start. I'm still pondering whether I need a love interest and whether that role will default to Tatters. And I have no idea what I’m doing for a villain.


Tuesday, March 23, 2010

It All Starts in a Tavern

For those who you haven’t read the previous post, go back and read it now. Then the rest of this will make sense.

There’s an old D&D notion about adventures always starting in taverns. The player characters are all sitting around, doing what they do, and the mysterious figure enters the bar, looking to hire adventurers to rescue a fair maiden or maybe just dropping hints about lost treasure. And the characters all jump at the opportunity because (a) they are heroes and (b) everything sounds better when you’ve been drinking.

Really, it’s just a handy shortcut to get the team assembled and off to the mission.

My D&D movie will not start that way.

But it has to start somewhere and the temptation to start in a tavern, just for the in-joke, is too great to resist. (Well, not really – if it turns out I need to establish more background before the tavern scene than I will drop the in-joke like a rock, but for the time being, it’s as good a jumping off point as any.)

My thought is this: Epic stories often start in small places, allowing the hero to venture out into a broader world. So my hero is in the tavern when trouble rides in to town and things go from there. But I don’t think I want the inexperienced farmboy hero. It’s a classic role and it works, but we’ve all seen it – Luke Sykwalker, Eragon,... I want my hero to be competent from the beginning. More Aragorn, less Frodo. So if the broader world is where adventure happens and the small village is a simpler, more innocent place, then it stands to reason that my hero must not be from the village.

So now I not only have a competent hero, I have one that needs a backstory. This is a man from Somewhere Else.

And whatever trouble comes to town has to engage him. This gives me two ideas. The first is that he’s the local lawman. He’s the guy with the sword that knows how to keep the farmers safe. I like it – it gives him a role, a job to do, a reason to get involved. And no one will be surprised that he knows how fight.

The second idea is that if trouble is coming to our innocent village, it could have something to do with our hero’s mysterious past. After weighing these two options back and forth, trying to decide which to use, I finally decide in my typical Libra fashion that there is no reason I can’t do both.

My lead character, who I’m currently calling Jon Warder, is the city guardian/local lawman for a small farming community. He’s a retired soldier with considerable experience in combat. And something dangerous from his past is coming to town...

That’s a lot of mileage from the simple notion that it would be funny to start in a tavern.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

April so soon?

In my last installment, I noted that I have plans for this blog in April. Well, April's coming early. See the thing is, my creative inspiration takes long vacations without inviting me and then comes back and acts all impatient. Muses -- can't live with 'em, can't live without 'em.

Here's the deal: The folks that bring you Nanowrimo, the 50,000 word novel writing challenge each November, also do a scriptwriting challenge each April called Script Frenzy. I've written play scripts before, including full length productions, but I've never written a movie script.

I've often noted that I could write a better Dungeons & Dragons movie than the one that hit the theaters. I mean really, who couldn't? Have you seen the D&D movie? (To be fair, I have not seen the original script and don't know how much it changed once it left the writer's hands. Hollywood tends to change scripts after casting instead of casting to scripts, from what I understand.)

So I'm going to put my money (or in this case, my blog) where my mouth is. I've already signed up with the Nanowrimo folks for the Script Frenzy challenge.

What I'm going to write isn't quite exactly a Dungeons & Dragons movie for two reasons -- (1) While I don't have any illusions that this script, which will undoubtedly require a Hollywood-size budget, will ever get produced, I remain aware that I have no right to the brand/trademark/intellectual property, and (2) being a real D&D movie would require the use of iconic D&D material, which I don't need to mess with. If it makes you feel better, pretend my master villain is a mind-flayer.

This blog will follow my progress and discuss the reasons behind the writing choices I make. I've been blogging about intentional writing -- here's my chance to show it in the works.

And even though I haven't started writing the script ('cause it's not yet April,) I have started making choices -- character names, character types, locations... Since I've started the work, it's time to start the blog.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Secrets and Lies

Stories often feature surprises -- unforeseen events, betrayals, characters who are not what they seem... At the very basic level, there are two types of surprises: things that catch the story's characters off-guard and things that actually surprise the reader. There is also a bit of a sliding scale, from things that are foreshadowed so that someone who is paying attention will be less surprised to events that are so out of left-field that no one sees them coming.

How you chose to handle such things changes the flavor of your story and even, possibly, the world in which it is set. A few examples...

In The Lord of the Rings the point is made that a servant of the enemy might appear fair, but would somehow feel foul. Grima Wormtounge may have seduced the ear of Theodan, but his evil is not in question to the reader (or many in Theodan's court, for that matter). But then Middle-Earth is the sort of place where good and evil are almost tangible forces. It's the sort of world where the armies of darkness are defeated at dawn, as if the sun itself rose to oppose them. So while a character may be briefly deceived, the attentive reader rarely is.

In Shakespeare's Othello, on the other hand, Iago appears perfectly trustworthy and upright -- as long as Othello is in the room. But in Shakespeare, one of the theatrical devices is that characters reveal their inner thoughts in solliloquies and in speeches to their allies and accomplices. This convention allows Shakespeare to show Iago's villainy clearly to the audience without him having to ooze slime blatantly when lying to the Moor.

In modern stories, a betraying character often gives no more clue to the reader than they do to the protaganist. The writer, while hopefully playing fair, wants to take the reader off-guard when the coat turns. This style portrays a world that is more realistic (relatively speaking) and dangerous, compared to worlds where the forces of darkness always feel foul.

Interesting how what is essentially a plotting and presentation decision changes the feel of the setting, isn't it?

And a quick teaser before I take my leave: I'm planning to do something a little different with this blog in April. After all, I wouldn't want things to get dull. Stay tuned for more details.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Storytelling and Storytelling

Several years ago, I was teaching classes on storytelling (the actual performing for a live audience version, not storytelling as a hip term for writing). One of the points I kept coming back to in those classes was doing things intentionally. I was trying to convey the value of making conscious decisions about the performance. You have to stand still, walk around, or sit down, for example, so you might as well think about which one works with the performance instead of just doing one at random.

So, moving to the other form of storytelling -- crafting the written word to tell a tale to readers -- is the advice still good? Well, yes and no. The difference here is that the work is done before the audience sees it, which gives you a luxury that live performance does not. When the manuscript is done, it needs to have intention and reason behind it. You need to be able to look at a given scene and know why that scene is necessary, what it adds to your plot, what it says about your characters.

But how you reach that point is up to you. Some authors write with detailed outlines. Some discover the story as they write it, finishing the work just to see how it ends. Either way, here is a bit of wisdom for you: When the words are flowing and the writing is coming easy, don't stop to analyze and edit. Get the words down on paper first.

When performing on stage, every word and every gesture is a commitment. There is no rewind button. The audience is watching and it remembers. But when you are writing, you can always go back and rewrite (or delete) later -- your audience only sees the finished product.

The desired end result is the same: You want a story that is well crafted and well presented. And the best way to reach that goal is to think about what you are doing and make the decisions that serve your story.

Note: There will be no blog entry next Thursday.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Originality Blues

Pop quiz: I thinking of a school. It's a special school, a training center for young people with special gifts that set them apart from the mundane world. What school am I thinking of? You have ten seconds. Go.

Now for the scoring. Did you say Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry? Professor Xavier's School for Gifted Youngsters? Camp Half Blood? Redhurst Academy? The Isle of Roke? The Invisible College? Something else entirely? Doesn't matter. Give yourself two points. Did you know that the phrase "Devil take the hindmost" comes from an old folktale about a school for magicians?

The reason I ask the question, I mean aside from the chance to show off my geek lore, is to demonstrate that there is no one answer. It has been argued that there are no new ideas, no new plots, no new stories. I'm not sure I agree.

But I am fairly certain that it doesn't matter. How you present an idea, how you tell a story -- these things can make all the difference. Does it matter if your special people are magic, mutant, psychic or bionic? Of course it does! But what really matters is how well you tell their stories. Whether you make us care about them and the challenges they face.

So don't worry too much about whether your core idea is shiny and new. Worry instead about what you can do with it. Where it can take you. And the funny thing is, this is true even if you do have a truly new idea. An idea by itself is not a story. You still have to do the work.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Characters Die

Death is one of those inevitable facts of life. If no one ever died in novels or movies or anything, it would seem unreal. Authors are assassins and gods, making that awesome, terrible choice of who lives and who dies. In my experience, character death in stories falls into two broad camps.

The first is the death that is necessary. For whatever reason, the plot or theme of the piece requires it. The death of Bruce Wayne's parents is central to the whole mythology surrounding Batman. In the classic heroic quest pattern Joseph Campbell calls the Hero's Journey, the mentor figure must die (or, at least, be abruptly removed from the hero's life). Otherwise, the mentor, being wiser and more skilled, would resolve the quest himself and the hero would not be challenged.

The other type of death is the type that just happens. Because death happens. Because if you live long enough, someone you know will die. This is a little harder to do in fiction, where we know that all the pieces have been put into place by an author. We have the understanding that every event in the story is a deliberate choice.

But just because the death is not a necessary event in terms of the plot (i.e., the story would have advanced just fine without it) doesn't mean it has no impact. Perhaps it illustrates the danger of a situation. Some situations (war comes to mind) are never entered into without cost and would not be believable if no price were paid.

In a gentler example, follow a protagonist through enough of his or her life, and the loss of a parent or loved one is an experience that should just naturally occur. Just as, over time, weddings and job interviews and love scenes will occur. These common but significant experiences give our lives a certain weight.

In stories, unlike life, death is just another thing. Just another possibility in the author's magic bag of tricks. But like everything in that terrible, wonderful bag, the author should reflect on how and why to use it.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Easy as A, B...

There's a common plotting trick, called the A Plot and the B Plot. I first heard of in reference to episodic television, but it can work as well any media. The basic idea is to have two running plots in the same setting and period of time.

The first plot, designated A, is in the forefront, involving major action and lead characters. The other plot, plot B, often involves peripheral characters and is likely less significant to the overall story.

I would argue that the overall work is stronger if the running plots are somehow related. I've seen shows were it felt like the two plots weren't even from the same writer -- and given the production schedules of weekly television, I suppose that's entirely possible. I can see at least three obvious degrees of interaction. From strongest to weakest, they are:

The two plots are connected, either in their action or thematically. The solution of one plot's conflict may contribute to (or even further complicate) the ultimate resolution of the other. (And generally, the A plot, being larger and more important, is resolved last.) Even a thematic link makes the overall story stronger.

The two plots have nothing to do with each other. This can still work, but it creates more of a balancing issue to make sure one plot doesn't completely outweigh the other. On the plus side you can cover more bases, maybe an action or mystery plot on one hand and a drama or comedy on the other.

Missed Connection
This one is bad and I've seen it happen. In this sad scenario, there is an obvious way that the plots should interact, but they don't. The characters involved in plot B find evidence that the hero of plot A needs, for example, to resolve a mystery. But even though the characters meet and discuss their respective plots, the plot B folks never bother to mention that they can solve plot A. This is, of course, frustrating to the reader/viewer/audience.

Things to consider when plotting your next work.