Thursday, January 28, 2010

How Delightfully Cliché

Today is a good day... to Blog. We've all seen them -- the little, clever phrases that become so popular. "Today is a good day to die," for the macho set, "Who are you and what have you done with..." when someone acts out of character, and, a good one for today's post, "think outside the box."

These little phrases are popular for a reason. They are concise and witty. When I first heard the phrase "24/7" I knew instantly what it meant. No one had to tell me 24 of what. And if you can adopt one of these phrases early enough, you get the added bonus of sounding hip and in tune with the times. Of course we want to use them. But alas, so does everyone else.

Many of these turns of phrase have a limited shelf life. They can date the work in which they are used. Sometimes, that's a good thing. A tale told in the sixties might benefit from words like "groovy." But it's not if you want your tale to be timeless. And be careful of anachronisms. I recently saw the movie The Boat that Rocked. I liked the movie, but I found its use of the phrase "Think outside the box" jarring for a story set in the early days of Rock 'n' Roll. I'm old enough to remember that there really was a time before the box.

Of course, it's harder to be clever on your own. But hey, if good writing was easy, everyone would do it. You'll notice, I trust, the cliché I used in that last sentence. Don't sweat it too much. They are part of our language and can't be avoided entirely. But like everything else, you get the best results when you think about what you are doing.

It's possible to turn a popular phrase around and make it your own. If your story takes place on Jupiter, for example, you can have events going on 10/7.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

For Certain Definitions of Poetry

I've presented panels on poetry, writing, and language for several years at Norwescon, a local science fiction convention. One of the things I've had the opportunity to discuss at length is meaning and value of poetry. So, as a result of those discussions, and somewhat in my own defense, I've come up with my working definition of poetry. I'd like to share it with you today.

Poetry occurs when word choice is important beyond the meaning of the words. When a word adds value to the work in addition to its definition, poetry is created. To put it another way, if you remove a word and replace it with a different word of the same meaning and the work suffers from the change, the word removed had some poetic weight. The phrases "diminish the lesson" and "lessen the lesson" basically mean the same thing, but one reads as a play on words and the other does not.

In a structured poem, the added value may be in the number of syllables, or the meter, or the ability to rhyme with another word. In other works, it could be as simple as choosing a short sharp word over a longer word with softer consonants.

But the nifty thing about this definition, to my mind, is that it's more about when poetic elements occur than it's about what makes an actual poem. So it also provides food for thought in writing stories or even non-fiction. I have personally found it useful when writing for the stage or preparing stories to be told out loud. Does the sound of this word work better than the sound of other words I could use?

In Arlo Guthrie's classic Alice's Restaurant, he uses the phrase "side of a side road." It has a nice repetition that "edge of a side road" doesn't. He also stretches the vowel sound a little, "siiiide of a siiide road," which wouldn't work as well with edge. He repeats the trick with the vowel later, referring to the sides of a piece of paper, creating a continuity of vocal tone through the work. Couldn't do that with "edge" -- the edge of a road and the side of a road may mean the same thing, but the edges of a piece of paper are different from its sides.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Show and Tell

A common bit of advice given to writers is "Show, don't tell." Let's say I'm trying to establish that my main character Bob is afraid of cats. No, on second thought, the way my novels run it's more likely that cats are deathly afraid of Bob. Either way, I can state the fact in a simple sentence or I can construct a scene in which Bob is locked in a small room with a cat. Either makes the point, but guess which will have a greater impact on the reader.

Of course, you can both show and tell. When writing the scene in which Bob and the unfortunate feline are about to have some quality time, I can begin with a statements like "It's a curious fact that cats are terrified of Bob. Ever since his parents first gave him a kitten when he was a child. It wasn't that Bob was mean to the poor kitty. It hid under the sofa before he even had a chance to say hello." All these statements tell the reader stuff directly. They are a nice set-up, but they still are not as powerful as a scene of Bob dealing with a cat in real time.

This combination of showing and telling has the nice effect of introducing a concept and then reinforcing it in the minds of the audience. But sometimes, just showing is stronger.

The realization the reader comes to on his or her own is particularly powerful. But you have to set it up carefully and trust the intelligence of your audience. Let's say I have a happy married couple at the beginning of my story. There are a number of scenes early on that show that the wife responds positively to being treated with respect. Somehow, over the course of the story, the husband changes. He gets involved in something dangerous, or is seduced, or picks up an addiction, or whatever. I then show scenes of him being disrespectful to his wife and eventually she decides to leave him.

In the tearful break-up scene, I could have the wife say "You don't respect me anymore." But if I've done my job right in the first place, I don't have to. She can leave him without a word and the reader will know why. If I'm really good, half the scene now takes place in my reader's head as he or she fills in the unspoken words on my character's behalf. Now that's reader involvement.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Tensioning the Reader

In my last post, I discussed a simple formula for conflict: Find what the characters want and don't give it to them. This time, I'd like to discuss a more advanced and more difficult version: Figure out the readers (viewers, audience, etc.) want and don't give it to them.

Ultimately, you want to satisfy the readers but you can keep them waiting for it. You have a villain that they need to see thoroughly defeated? You have a couple that are so perfect for one another that the readers want them to fall in love? You can tease the readers with almosts -- the hero looks like he's going to trounce that dastardly villain this time, but no, this isn't the final showdown. Not yet. And there's still that pesky ex to deal with. It's another way to create dramatic tension.

The longer we have to wait for that grand moment, the better it is when it finally arrives -- at least to a point. You don't want to go on so long that the reader loses faith that we will ever get there. And the more you build to a climax, the more, well, climactic it has to be. The pay-off has to be worth the wait. It's back to that idea of keeping your promises to the reader in order to make a satisfying story.

And there is another danger as you steer the plot to tease the reader. The reader might see what you are doing. The actions of the plot still have to develop naturally from the decisions and actions of the characters. If a character does something the reader thinks they are unlikely to do and the result of that character action is clearly the creation of an additional plot wrinkle -- it all just ends up feeling contrived by the author.

I suppose all action in a story is contrived by its author, but the reader is willing to suspend some awareness of that point if the actions appear to be derived from the characters rather than the needs of the writer. If the audience asks "Why did the writers make her do that?" instead of "Hmm, why is she doing that?" you've already lost the battle.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Desire and Denial

So far, I've discussed conflict in terms of meeting challenges and obstacles. But there's another way to look at it: figure out what your character wants and don't give it to him. It's a nice trick because it starts with telling us something about the character, and, if you'll forgive the buzz words, it ensures the conflict will be character-driven.

Everybody wants something. From the basics of food and shelter to the more complex desires like love, respect, power, and adoration, every character has something they fiercely believe they need.

True story: I had been unemployed for months and was in danger of my unemployment payments running out when I finally got called in for a job interview. So naturally, I had a flat tire. I knew it was the interviewer's last available time slot, so I couldn't reschedule. Not enough time to call a cab, the upstairs neighbors weren't home to loan me their car, fixing the tire didn't work... Man, I wanted my shot at getting that job. And I actually did make it to the interview on time, but I had to work for it. See the dramatic tension?

It's a simple formula - don't give 'em what they want. In fact, it's a little too simple. It's fine for a very short story, but in any extended form (novel, TV series, movie franchise), it will become tiresome if the hero never gets anything he wants. It still works, however, if leavened with a little bit of success.

Take a classic romance plotline: Girl meets Boy. Boy is cute (and probably rich), but more importantly, Girl sees something in Boy that others don't -- kindness, perhaps. Boy has no idea Girl exists. Girl pines for Boy. This is stage one - she wants something she can't have. Girl works at getting Boy's attention, or is thrust into an awkward situation where they are forced to work together. Somewhere beyond the halfway point of the story, Girl gets Boy. Their love is recognized, acknowledged, and (depending on the age of the intended audience) consummated.

This is when Estranged Wife shows up. See, a single success doesn't necessarily end the story. Now Girl has to fight to keep what she wants. Or consider that maybe, having gotten it, what she thought she wanted all along wasn't what she really needed. Now we have opportunities for character growth.

And if all else fails, you can always ask -- what does my character want next?

Tuesday, January 12, 2010


A lot of today's popular fiction involves power figures. Our adventure stories are full of cops, tough guys, and gunslingers. The fantasy section of the bookstore is full of vampires, werewolves, and witches. The summer movie screens are filled with superheroes and space aliens.

A degree in psychology is not required to understand the appeal. By identifying with powerful figures, we indulge our own power fantasies. If I could fly...

But powerful figures can be tricky to write. Drama requires conflict and greater power requires greater conflict. It's harder to threaten a character who is bulletproof. It's harder to fool a mind-reader. It's just plain difficult to find good challenges when your hero is a god. Finding excuses to make the hero weak (on anything other than a temporary level) only dillutes the power fantasy for the audience.

Power is relative, however. One common solution is to make the antagonist even more powerful. The hero is still strong -- it's just that the villain is even stronger. Then the challenge is for author to find the hero to some believeable way to overcome the more powerful foe.

There is a danger of escalation, espescially in ongoing serial adventures. The villain can't let the trick that worked last time beat him again. As the protagonist develops more tricks and therefore becomes more powerful, it becomes harder to account for what he can do. "Why didn't he do that mind trick he did three episodes ago," departing fans will ask. Or "C'mon, she's already been established as a better fighter than that!"

There is another type of conflict that can be used with powerful characters. There is a drama in considering how power should be used. One of my favorite Star Trek episodes involves a case when the Enterprise was the most powerful ship in the conflict. There was no question of who would win if the phasers started firing. The drama came from the question of how that power would be used and what the potential long-term consequences would be.

Spider-man's origin is a classic example. Spidey is the only one in the story with super-powers at all. But his failure to use them rightly leads to the death of his Uncle Ben and thus drama, conflict.

My current set of published novels involve people who gain magical power that they never asked for and don't know how to use. They have to learn the responsibilities of power. I rather suspect that more of us dream of having power than dream of having the wisdom to use it well.

Powerful characters are fun, no question. But writers should think carefully about how to challenge them.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Writing about Thinking about Thinking about Writing

Over the past several posts, I've reflected on various aspects of writing and story creation. I've poked at word choice and character development and object significance. I've rambled about making stories satisfying and characters likable. And a question has occurred to me. I think it is a fair question and a question that needs to be asked. Do writers really think about this stuff?

I don't know. Maybe?

I think most of the other writers that I've had the pleasure to speak with would agree that when you are actually writing -- when the words are flowing from your brain to your fingertips to your keyboard or notepad -- don't stop. This is not the time to wonder about where to place the commas. That's what rewrites are for.

Me? I think about this stuff in the shower. I think about it when I'm taking long walks, wondering if my background characters need more screen time. When the resolution to my big conflict feels too easy. When the funny bits actually need to be, well, you know, funny.

All these reflections and ideas that we've been discussing are tools. Mostly I pull out the tool box when I think the story is broken. The story isn't ready until you say it is ready. There is always time for a few good repairs.

But I suppose there is also something to be said for craftsmanship. The carpenter who has a good set of tools and knows when to use them will make a better table, right from the start.

Thinking about writing, about the craft of writing and the tools of writing, can help improve your writing. How could it do otherwise?

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Being Contradictory

Any Doctor Who fans out there? I've observed, on more than one occasion, that The Doctor is the oldest, wisest, smartest, idiot child in the universe. Sometimes driven and serious, but just as often clownish and disrespectful. I love that. I've discovered that I am intrigued by characters that contain contradictions. Gentle killers, shy exhibitionists, civilized savages, whatever.

Characters that carry their own contradictions can be unpredictable. They can take a wider range of actions without being seen as acting out of character. We know what the brave hero does when faced with certain peril. But the coward who sometimes finds his courage? We know what we want him to do but we don't know what he will do. And that creates dramatic tension.

Contradictions may be inherent in the personality of the character, as with The Doctor, or they may be introduced as the characters grow and overcome (or fail to overcome) challenges. A shy, unnoticed, habitually quiet person may find the strength to stand up and take charge when no one else will. A stone-cold assassin my hesitate when a child enters the kill zone.

These movements are tricky and must be handled with care. The goal is to surprise the reader or audience with something unexpected but not totally unbelievable for the established character.

If the character is changed completely, if they don't go back to whoever they were before rising to their particular occasion, then no contradiction is expressed. Their experience is merely a life-changing event. But they can't go back completely, either. They must now carry the potential to contradict their established pattern and the reader or audience must see that potential at least occasionally. Otherwise whatever happened was just an aberration, a break in character that was convenient to the author.

I will not claim, as some might, that characters who are always brave, heroic, steadfast, and true inherently boring. Like all other types of characters, they just want to be written well. At best, such characters can represent what we aspire to be. But characters that have contradictory natures? Characters that can be heroes today and still fail tomorrow, or who can be brave and uncertain, all at once? I think such characters are closer to representing what we really are.