Saturday, December 31, 2011

Inertia Momentum Resolution

Umm.. Hi, It’s been awhile. I haven’t blogged in three months or so. I have lots of excuses, which we will get to in the next paragraph, but really, that’s all they are. Excuses. The first thing about writing is this – just do it. Today’s lesson is about the perils of stopping.

I used to write on the bus going to work. But I don’t bus to work anymore because my wife works now and we carpool. So I didn’t have my allotted writing hour. Still, in three months, you’d think I’d work something out. Mind you, they have been busy months, full of family and medical and travel and employment concerns.

Like I said, excuses. Here’s the thing: I stopped and got out of the habit. I let my life and my imagination fill up with other stuff. Science teaches us that objects at rest tend to remain at rest and that there is a factor called inertia that must be overcome to set an object into motion.

This is why writers dread blocks. This is why I love having deadlines. Whatever you are writing, it won’t get done if you don’t start and it won’t get done if you don’t continue. There is often a point in any project where the writer thinks “This is all crap!” and is tempted to stop. But there is also a point, if you write long enough, where the project starts to built around you and finishing is exciting.

Objects in motion tend to remain in motion. Get in motion.

I’m writing this on the last day of the year 2011. I’m writing this because I asked myself for a New Years Resolution. I am writing this because I don’t know where my blog will take me in 2012, but once again I am excited to find out.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

What’s My Motivation?

I’ve been thinking about character motivation. I don’t think I need to sell anyone on the notion that believable characters act in consistent, understandable ways. That it is not good for a story when the reader says, “I don’t believe that character would ever do that.”

In life, however, we rarely know why anyone does anything. People don’t actually expound freely on their motivations, their decision making process. And some decisions can seem pretty strange.

It has also be noted that it can be good for a story when characters do surprising things.  So if characters can and should do the unexpected and if it is realistic to never truly know the motivations of others, it follows that the author shouldn’t really worry too much about characters behaving consistently, right?

Wrong, unfortunately. It would be a lot easier if the characters could always just do whatever the plot requires, but no. One of the things we do in life, perhaps as a survival mechanism, is try to get to know people. One of the pleasures of reading or watching movies and TV is using our getting-to-know muscles on fictitious people.

Authors have been known to speak about characters taking on lives of their own, making choices and taking actions outside the plot laid out for them. This occurs when the author has taken enough time in contemplation of the character to get to know them enough that certain choices seem, well, out of character.

And what’s really magic is when, through the character’s perspective, the author comes to choices and decisions that would never even have occurred to him or her otherwise.

When your characters want to jump a certain way, let them. Don’t force them in a mold to fit the plot. Because if their actions seem off to you, their creator, how can you sell them to an audience?

A NOTE ABOUT THE BLOG: I write this blog on the bus to work. Due to a (happy!) change in my employment circumstance, I will not be bussing to work much longer. I’m not sure what this will do to how often I blog. We will have to see what works out.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Working Backwards

In the last three installments, I played around with building a story out of various pieces – a setting here, a conflict there, couple of characters – with the intention of showing how none of the individual pieces were enough to be story by themselves.

Today I’d like to take another approach.  If the point of art is to express something, to make your audience feel, then why not start at the point? In stories this is usually done through conflicts, through the risks the characters take and the decisions they face.

There are some concepts (regardless of how they are presented – scenes, images, conflicts, etc.) that we can expect most people to respond to strongly. Children in peril, for example. There are other concepts that, human individuality being what it is, that different people will respond to differently.  Say a cold glass of iced tea. It’s great if the weather is hot and you happen to like tea.

You want to include concepts in your narrative that people will respond to. But it most stories aren’t all children in peril, all the time. But the less universal the interest point, the more you have to build around it.  If you want to focus on that glass of ice tea, for example, you should probably also provide the hot day (a setting element) and someone who could really use a cup of tea (a character element) and possibly even some additional background.

What we are doing here is starting with an interest point and then working backwards to insert the elements that help sell that interest to the reader. All stories are contrivance and all stories contain conflict but it is never good for your conflict to feel contrived to the reader.

So if you have a really good, interesting conflict, perhaps somewhere in between my child is in danger! and I could sure use some iced tea, the next step is to construct the narrative elements that lead naturally to that conflict so that it doesn’t feel like it’s just been dropped into the story like a falling piano in a cartoon.

Sure, there are events in life that feel that sudden to the people they impact, but remember that your characters are only one element of your story.  A bomb going off can be every bit as stunning as it should be to your protagonist, even if your readers saw the bomb planted by the antagonist several pages ago. And better still if we’ve spent enough time with the villain to believe he or she really would resort to explosives.

All of this is really a way of saying you can work backwards, if you like. Start with a scene you’d like to have and then consider everything that is required to make the scene work, building the elements from the needs of the story instead of drawing the story from the elements.

I have a tendency to work in both directions. But as I have said before and will no doubt say again, every author is different, so play around with the tools and find what works for you. No one cares what tools you use to fix the sink – they care if the sink works.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Setting, Situation, Scene… Part Three – The Conclusion

Once, as a child, I read a very forgettable book with a memorable bit in it. I don’t remember the book at all, but I remember this: one of the child heroes (it was a kid’s book, after all) was in the middle of a Lassie movie when the call to action came. When he whined about missing the end of his movies, one of his friends pointed out that we all knew how it ended. Lassie saves the day.

Yeah, the first kid replies, but I wanted to see how.

In my previous two posts, I pulled together the elements of a story. We have an interesting setting, some character interaction, an intriguing situation, and even some nice conflict.

Will our heroes risk their jobs and possibly even their position in time and space in order to expose their employer’s dangerous experiments? And how will the odd, one-sided romance angle play out?

If you think about it, gentle reader, you probably already know the answers to those questions. I mean, it’s not like you haven’t been exposed to stories before. Of course our heroes will pursue both the dangerous truth and the romance. Wouldn’t be much of a story if they didn’t.

But, if I write it all up well, hopefully you will want to stick around to see how they reach those answers.  To be a story, to be a good and satisfying story, beguiling the reader or viewer or audience with all the fun bits isn’t enough. It’s just a start.

But the story has to resolve. To reach a conclusion. To reach a good conclusion consistent with and worthy of what has gone before. And your audience has to care enough to follow you there.

And if I knew all the secrets to making that happen I’d be rich and famous. But I tell you this: it can be done.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Setting, Situation, Scene, Story (Part Two)

Today’s entry will make more sense if you’ve read Part One, which should still be available for review. Fair warning, and all.

So we have lots of samples of settings and situations, and even the start of a scene, but no story. But these are elements used in stories – so can we make a viable story from them?

I’d start with the scene because it has a pair of characters in it. Stories always involve characters. Always. Sure, I could tell the story of Olympic National Park, and I could tell it with conflict and excitement, but only if I can make you care about the park.  Make its successes and failures important to you.  At which point, it is a character. Never said they had to be human.

Our two characters from the previous blog are Frank and Angie. They’ve only just met, but she is madly in love with him. Awkward.  I need a place (possibly more, but let’s start with one) for their scene, and ultimately their story, to take place. Looking at the various settings I proposed before, I think I’ll take the weird office with the clones in the Mail Room.

I note that the reception staff are telepathic. So if I make Angie a receptionist, it starts to explain her falling for Frank before being introduced. But I also want something else going on, so they can explore their one-sided relationship in the midst of dealing with the crisis du jour.  From my list of situations, I choose the intriguing Charlie Brown lunch box on Mars.

But that’s a mystery, not a conflict. I need something that involves the characters and impels them into action.

How’s this? The weird office – let’s call it Mad Science Inc. – found the lunch box while doing commission work for NASA, processing Mars Rover data. Unfortunately, the lunch box got there due to an illegal and dangerous time/space distortion experiment conducted by, you guessed it, Mad Science Inc.

Frank is a low pay scale data guy who notices that the info being fed to NASA has been tinkered with. He gets to discover what’s going on, become involved in a cover up, and make a moral choice whether to risk his job by blowing the whistle (or maybe risk his life – there’s some strange and scary stuff behind the doors of our Mad Science company), and he gets to do it all while being trailed by a love-sick, telepathic receptionist.

That’s better. Conflict, character, moral decisions, action. Much better. Still not a story, though. We’ve got all the pieces, we’ve started assembling the puzzle, what’s still missing?

Join us next time for part three, the conclusion.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Setting, Situation, Scene, Story (Part One)

There are a lot of entertainments I concoct in the idle fancies of my delirious mind. I’m a fantasy guy, no question.

Sometimes I dream a world like our own, but somewhat askew. What would the world be like, I wonder, if there were licensed, professional wizards? How would they dress? What would we hire them for? Or, I ask myself, what would the world be like after some great, unexpected transformative event? And sometimes I work on a smaller scale, my wonders to create. What would be the weirdest job office I can think of? Where the mail room staff are all clones of the same person and the receptionists are telepathic.

And sometimes I’m more amused by setting up a mystery, or a puzzle. An unmanned Mars probe finds a Charlie Brown lunch box.  A homeless man in Detroit stumbles across a corpse that is not entirely human.

And, probably because I have script-writing experience, I spin out encounters and moments of dialogue.

   ANGIE: I just what you to know… I’m madly in love with you.

   FRANK: Uh, okay. Hi, I’m Frank, by the way.

  ANGIE: Angie. Pleased to meet you.

I could spin that into a full-blow sequence of events, with humor and clever interactions. I could easily waste an afternoon on it, if I had one to spare.

The  problem, from a writer’s perspective, is that none of these things are stories. They are, in order, settings, situations, and scenes. That they all suggest stories is wonderful. They are starters, if you will, story seeds.

But your audience, be they readers or viewers or listeners, didn’t come for the tease. They didn’t come for anything less than the full show.

So next time we’ll discuss how to give it to them.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Ella Sings

Does the world really need one more vampire story?

Before I answer that question, let me break into a seemingly irrelevant anecdote that will, of course, turn out to be a useful analogy.

I was sitting at my computer the other day and I decided to search for some music. I ended up on You Tube, like one does, and I found some old concert footage of Bobby Darin singing “Mack the Knife.” I noticed that one of the comments posted under the video, stating that only Bobby Darin could really do the song justice – other performers just didn’t get the timing.

I thought that was a particularly inane thing to say. The song in question has been performed by Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra and, believe it or not, Jimmy Buffet. You honestly mean to say that none of these professional, established, highly accomplished and very talented musicians can get the timing on a song?

The point is, the other performers had their own ideas. They probably had the skills to do a Bobby Darin impersonation, but why would they do that? They chose not to be Bobby Darin (or, in at least some of the cases, Bobby Darin probably chose not to be them – I’m not sure of the chronology). I mean really, would you rather hear Ella Fitzgerald belt a song out of the park as Ella or hear her do a pale imitation of someone else?

Does the world need another vampire story? Or another romance novel?  Or another television show following the adventures of a starship crew?  Another urban paranormal detective?

It needs at least one more: Yours.

But only if it really is yours, and not a poor rendition of someone else’s work.  The world doesn’t need a Bobby Darin wannabe. Or, I guess, maybe a  Steven King wannabe.

Artists use the same tools.  Writers reiterate themes and genres and metaphors the way musicians cover songs.  No sin there. Sometimes it’s even good that the audience is aware of the conventions of the genre, familiar with the style.

But everyone has their own unique perspective, too.  Trying to be someone else is no way to succeed in art.  At best, it’s a useful learning exercise.  But I’m never going to buy an imitation when the original master is still publishing at the same price.  Who would?

Today’s inspirational message was brought to you by the letter M and the numbers one and three.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

The Unwritten Stuff

It is a truism that writers tend to develop more information about their characters and setting than actually appears in the story.  And, it is said, this process improves the story, even though the missing data is never visible to the audience. That’s the mystery part – the characters and settings become more rich, consistent, and real, even though we don’t see everything they are consistent with. (And yes, I know I just ended a sentence with a preposition. I do that. I also start sentences with conjunctions.)

For my part, I hate working out detailed backstory. I prefer a more generalized origin story that can be summed up in a few sentences. That’s because I like leeway. I know that, as an author, I am not required to stick to the notes that my reader will never see, but I like the feeling of flexibility. I guess, really, I like not having the decision made until I know what the story demands.

Once a decision is made, it feels concrete, even though nothing is set in stone until the story is finished and the final edits are done. And even then you have to be ready for a publisher or an agent to request changes.

If I decide my character has green skin, by way of a simple, ordinary, down-to-earth example, then I tend to think of my character as, well, green. The character is subject to Kermit the Frog jokes and has an excuse not to eat broccoli. Of course I can re-write the character blue, and I will if the story demands, but it is harder than you would think, because in my head, green is the color.

I also find that detailed facts are often less interesting to me than personality. So when I do need a backstory, I don’t generally work out details like Bob enlisted as soon as he turned 18.  Instead, I tend to think what would Bob say if someone asked about when he enlisted. “Soon as I could,” maybe, or “When I was young and idealistic,” or, “If I’d know they’d move me out of Nowheresville, I’d have lied about my age and joined up sooner.” I learn more about my characters that way.

Anyway, that’s what works for me. Some writers used detailed outlines. Some write organically, looking to see what happens next. I think there is some benefit to having a road map, but maybe it should be a new-fangled electronic one that moves the landmarks as new data is entered.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Peeves on a Leash

It startles me that, in this modern and enlightened age, I have read professionally published novels with Deus ex Machina endings. I mean, there are still editors, right?

I once heard an author at a convention say that one of the big things that gets people into trying to write professionally, for whatever medium, is when they look at something and say “I could do better than that!”

Generally, I suspect they find that writing well is harder than it looks. But at least they know which mistakes they are not going to make.

So what are your pet peeves when it comes to storytelling? What tropes drive you nuts? Me, I’m getting awfully tired of the idiot listening to loud music through headphones who fails to hear the carnage and screaming from right behind him. We’ve all seen that movie, right?

And I don’t like it when a character makes a promise and the reader knows instantly that the story will be set up to make him or her break the promise.

And the Deus ex, of course. Any contrivance so old it’s name dates back to classical antiquity should be probably be avoided.

But it’s all personal taste, isn’t it? There are some tropes that I’ve seen as often as the idiot in headphones and they still work for me every time. 

Crafting a story is  an art based on choices, on making decision after decision after decision. And consciously or not, the tricks you’ve seen before are in your head, part of your storytelling arsenal.

Use them wisely.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Irons in the Fire

How much stuff do you work on at once? When I’m deep in a project, like the play script I wrote in April, that commands most of my focus. Deadlines also help – the challenge was to finish the play before the end of the month.

Now, two months later, I’m a little out of focus. A little fuzzy around the edges. Here is what is currently going on – I have an idea for a very short theater piece for an Society for Creative Anachronism event coming up in the fall, I have a new novel idea I’m working on based on a creative challenge from my wife, and I have an unfinished web comic script for my sister-in-law. Not to mention the other usual bits of creativity and weirdness that typically occupy my mind.

I don’t know that human creativity is necessarily a limited pool. Spending it here doesn’t mean you will have none left to spend there.  But let’s be real – your time is a limited pool.  And actually working on a project takes time. So, how many irons can you have in the fire at once? For me, things get done when they are given  priority.

So, based on my previous experiences with my own brain, this is what I predict will happen: The play script will jump up in priority after I figure out when it is due – i.e., what is the date of the event and how much lead time before that will be required to mount the production? The play is short and will probably be finished in a comparatively short time.

The novel suffers from the opposite problem. It isn’t short and I don’t expect to finish it soon. I predict the novel to be worked on in intermittent bursts of creativity as cooler versions of scenes present themselves, causing me to re-think and rewrite the little bit I’ve already done.  I hope to eventually achieve a kind of critical mass, where ideas lead to ideas and a the old snowball-rolling-downhill effect occurs.  There is a certain point, if I can reach it, where successfully completing the work becomes exciting on its own.

Not sure about the web comic script – I suspect there will be some outside demand from that quarter coming down the line.

Authors tend to bitch about deadlines, but they have a certain value. Its the things that I need to get done that I do get done. So here’s a bit of writing advice to round out this otherwise overly personal blog entry – if you are having trouble getting motivated to finish your story, try promising it to someone else. Set a realistic, achievable deadline and tell someone about it. Find a way to make it a priority.

Now I just need to take my own advice.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

The Two Deaths of Andrew Dolbeck

There are two types of character death in fiction. (No, actually there are probably thousands. But there is a division of two that I would like to discuss. And while we are being parenthetical, today’s writing lesson can apply to more than death – feel free to substitute any dramatic plot event.) Let us call them the story-driven death and the reality emulating death.

The story-driven death suits the story. No surprise there. The deadly event occurs at just the right point in the plot, it fits the themes of the work, it advances the progression of the surviving characters.

There are many classic examples – the person who has done wrong, seeking redemption, dies saving the lives of others. Or, for a twist, the pure and good hero dies saving the person who has done wrong, adding value to their redemption quest. And let us not forget the mentor figure who dies in the middle of the classic Hero’s Journey. Or the passing of the sword from one generation to the next. In horror movies, the character that invents or unleashes the evil force is typically on the to-be-killed list.

You’ve seen these stories before – you know the drill.  And that’s part of the problem. Story-driven deaths can be effective and moving, but they can also be predictable.

I personally favor action genres, with cops and detectives and space pilots and characters who, for no reason, wear bright spandex costumes while fighting crime. These characters operate in dangerous worlds. In such worlds, death should strike unexpectedly. It should not be predictable.

Which brings us to the reality emulating death. The argument here is simple: people die. In real life, no one dies to suit the plot. Death occurs on its own time. 

There are benefits to having this kind of death in your story. In most fiction, a certain degree of willing suspension of disbelief is required. Having people dodge bullets all day without consequence doesn’t exactly make that suspension any easier.

The reality emulating death also makes a statement about hazardous environments. In war people die. People die unfairly and unexpectedly in space, in unsanitary conditions, and in the bad part of town.

And once a well loved character dies unexpectedly, outside what we believe to be the rhythm and structure of the plot, all bets are off. No one is safe. Anything can happen.  And that’s a fun place for the author to have the reader.

On the other hand, we don’t always want our fictions to be as haphazard and meaningless as our real lives. Character deaths that do not sync with the story may seem arbitrary and forced. Or, depending on the story, too harsh.

Of course, every reader will have a different opinion. In the end, as always, you need to weigh carefully what suits your story.

Because your readers certainly will.

Friday, May 20, 2011

The Meaning of It All

The first advice writers are often given is: just do it. Write. Get the words down on paper or the electronic media of your choice. Good advice, but it leads directly to the more difficult questions, like what do I want to write?

In my time I’ve written poetry, research papers, novels, non-fiction, stage plays, and even, Heaven forgive me, a small amount of advertising copy. And for all of these things, there are techniques and structures available that have stood the test of time.

My personal preference, in whatever format, is to tell a story. And if you go back and look at some of my earliest posts on this blog, you’ll see I’ve given a lot of thought to the elements of story – characters, plot, resolution, stuff like that. But lately I’ve had another concern:

Do I actually have anything to say?

That is, do I , as the artist, have anything to convey about life, society, or the human condition? It’s not required, of course. I’m an unashamed escapist with a preference for action, adventure, and the occasional mindless explosion.

And it’s not that I think my works are devoid of artistic merit. I’ve examined themes of sexual identity, power and responsibility, and the concerns of mortality, just to name a few.

But I never start with the message. I’m a language guy – I tend to start with the tone and feel of the piece. With how I want the words to sound. And I start with story. With the likeable characters and the conflict and plot.

I don’t have an axe to grind. I don’t have an agenda.

And sometimes I can’t help thinking that maybe my works would be stronger if I did.

Or maybe not. Maybe it is better to expect readers to want to be entertained (and maybe take home a little message with their fun) than to expect readers to want a message disguised as their entertainment.

But still, at the end of the day, I hope my works will somehow stand up as art.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Getting Tense

A writing friend asked me the other day about whether she should continue to write her novel in the present tense. Since I put a bit of thought into my answer, I’m going to recycle it here for the benefit of my readers.

First, let me start by acknowledging that the past tense is the standard default setting. I suspect it dates back to oral tradition – stories recount events that have already occurred, so we tell them in the past tense. It sounds natural to the ear, where the present tense may stand out and be distracting.

It is also not necessary to use the present tense to convey urgency or immediacy. Many can’t-put-‘em-down page turners have been written in the past tense.

This doesn’t mean the present tense is inherently wrong. But like any tool in the writer’s kit, it should be used to build a better story. Is there a reason for the present tense? My third novel has two running timelines, one past and one current, so I use both the present and past tenses to keep them clear to the reader.

Another trick might be to use the present tense for dream sequences or for when the narrative is told from the perspective of an animal, a space alien, or some other notably unusual point of view.

Nothing is wrong if it makes the story better, but there is a balancing act.  Any deviation, any trick, any clever bit of writing, needs to be judged carefully, weighing the benefit it brings to the work against any confusion or distraction it may bring the reader.

I have read more than one well-written, professionally published novel written entirely in second person narration, which just goes to show that weird stuff can be done and done well.

So my advice on using the present tense is: Know why you are using it and check occasionally to be sure it’s really working for you.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Outlines and Writing Sequence

Oh my, I haven’t really blogged much in April, have I?  I’ve been busy. Remember the Script Frenzy challenge to write 100 pages of script in April? Despite taking four days off for Norwescon and catching a killer cold, I managed to complete a stage play.

It’s a first draft. Like all first drafts, it will require review and revision. But it’s done. At 79 pages.

It was an interesting writing experience. I wrote final scene first, because I knew how it had to end. Then I wrote the first scene, because certain things had to be established for the final scene to work. Then I wrote some stuff in the middle, in no particular order. Then I wrote the scene that came before the first scene and then the scene that came after the final scene.

A lot of writers start with outlines. Obviously, I’m not one of them. But I had created such a cluster that I had to impose order on it. So, rather than outline what I needed to write, I went back and outlined what I had already written (which, incidentally, told me what I still needed to write).

What I  learned from the exercise was that my story had three distinct problems arising from the order of the scenes.

The first was sequence.  Characters cannot act on information before they receive it and problems cannot be resolved before they occur. This was the most obvious problem.

A little more subtle was the issue of timing.  In one case, I had a character told she could not return to work until she had solved a certain problem. At the start of the very next scene, she returned to work with a clever solution. It was in the right sequence, but it happened too fast. It just doesn’t seem like much of a problem when the audience only experiences five minutes of real time before it gets resolved.

And finally, there was the problem of flow – how one scene proceeds into the next.  It’s easy to cut between scenes on the stage with a blackout or a curtain, but cutting from a pair of characters on one set to the same pair of characters on the same set may not flow as well as other transitions.

This is part of the fun of working in different formats. All of these lessons can apply to the construction of any type of story, but they were easy to see while I was writing for the stage.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

A Clever Word Avoidance Strategy

Short blog because I’m already behind on Script Frenzy.  The title of my play has changed, by the way.  I kept looking at The Souls Academy and thinking “Souls” looked like it wanted to be possessive, when the original intent was for it to be plural.  The current working title, still subject to change, is The Apocalypse According to Saint Michelle of the Coffee Shop.

Today’s writing lesson is in how not to be trite.  Or maybe it’s about word choice.  I’m writing a play about religious themes, but I don’t want to talk directly about things like “the healing power of love" because frankly it will make the audience wince. 

So I am actively avoiding certain words.  For “love,” for example, I’m talking about understanding and kindness. It’s less ambiguous anyway.  And, like with the sonnets I discussed a few blogs back, it forces me to expand my vocabulary.

Another trick I’m using is hiding key words amongst words of lesser importance.  Forgiveness is a major theme of the play – more so than love, actually.  So I don’t want to beat the audience over the head with it, especially early on.  So instead of saying “you need to forgive him,” I say things like “forget him, forgive him, or whatever you need to move past him…” The concept is still in there, but it is far less obtrusive.

And yes, authors worry about stuff like this all the time. Believe it or not, it’s part of the fun.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Staging the Next April Project

It’s April 1st as i write this.  In addition to being April Fool’s Day, it’s the start of Script Frenzy, the script writing challenge from the wacky folks that brought you Nanowrimo.

I wasn’t going to do the Frenzy this year, but then I remembered an idea for the ending of a play that I’ve had in my head for several years.

I’m going to have to start with the ending and write backwards.  (Back…words?)  Wish me luck.

I’m also going to need to figure out where the play is set.  I have action and characters, but no backdrop.  This is important for stage plays – every change in location requires a set change, which requires the theater to spend time and money.

Many modern plays revel in set changes – the elaborate sets and fancy changes are part of the spectacle.  And also part of the ticket price.

And on the other end of the spectacle spectrum, there is bare stage.  Shakespeare is largely written for the bare stage – the actors come in and simply announce where they are and the audience goes with it.  My, the Forest of Arden is lovely this time of year.  (Amusingly, A Chorus Line, famous for its big musical production numbers, is also written for bare stage.)

So I’m going to start writing now.  My work is tentatively entitled The Souls Academy: A Blasphemy in Two Acts.  I don’t really know yet if it will really be two acts.

But I’m fairly certain about the blasphemy part.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Perspective Matters

A fictitious character walks up to you and says, “The other day I saw two birds in flight, one below the other.  The further from me they flew, the closer together they came, until at last, in the distance, they merged into a single bird.”

How would you respond? My first thought is “You’re farsighted.  You should get glasses.”  But I’m not you and that is very important. 

How would people from other times and places have responded?  Perhaps “You are seeing double.  You should drink less ale.”  Or, “Your vision is  a terrible omen.  You should be burned at the stake.”  Or, “You have seen the bird’s spirit flying beside it.  You should study under the tribal shaman.”

The point that I am so subtly bludgeoning here is that everyone’s answer is based on their knowledge, their culture, their perspective.  This is particularly important for fictitious people, who carry the burden of illustrating their world to their readers.

The culture and perspective of the characters impacts not only how they see the world, but the choices they make and the words they use.  And it is not just something that authors need to consider in terms of character.  It can inform even the word choices and language of the work.

I am told that the use of the word “focus” to mean concentration – focusing on a problem, focusing one’s energies – is derived from the science of optics and is therefore a fairly modern term.  So a Stone Age sorcerer would not focus his magics.

Now, you may be saying, that’s a bit nit-picky.  And you are right, it is.  There is a counter argument that states to be read and understood, the work needs to be in the language of the modern reader.  After all, to be truly authentic, any piece set far enough in the past should be linguistically incomprehensible to all but the most dedicated scholars.  And honestly, you want to sell to a wider readership than that.

But the counter argument should not be used as an excuse to avoid any research or effort in fully depicting the perspective (and the world) of the character.  It’s more of a balancing act.  Accessible language and the portrayal of a foreign or fantastical perspective are not mutually exclusive.  It comes down to making writing choices – will this word choice support my story without confusing my reader?

Hey, I’m sorry, but no one ever said writing was going to be easy.  But oddly enough, it can sometimes be a whole lot of fun.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Secret Genre Identities

I written before about how genres are built up of conventions and expectations.  But times change and sometimes genres have to adapt to keep up.

The obvious example would be the old cowboy movies that inspired a generation of children to play Cowboys and Indians.  Westerns today acknowledge the cultural complexity and diversity of Native Americans.  Besides, they were here first.

And the role of women, in just about any genre, has changed a good deal since the 1950’s.  And the spy genre is still adapting to the end of the cold war.

But it isn’t always the sledge hammer of political correctness.  Sometimes the changes are a little more subtle.  Sometimes the tropes just get tweaked a little, here and there.  In the current super-hero space, for example, the secret identity has been devalued.  It’s still there – it’s too central to the concept to toss aside, but it’s not the same. 

You rarely see a story these days that centers around a hero’s close friend almost stumbling on the big secret.  Clark Kent and Bruce Wayne no longer pretend to be bumbling idiots just to contrast their super lives.  And where it used to be only one or maybe two at most knew a hero’s identity, now the secret is commonly shared.  Heroes call each other by their personal names.  Clark married Lois.  Heck, even Aunt May knows who Spider-Man is.

There are a number of reasons for the change – we’re not really a culture that values humility and anonymity.  No one gets a promotion by being just another office drone.  And we live in an information age where personal privacy has become something that needs actively defending.  I think the heroes have adapted fairly well, considering such a central genre trope is no longer a good fit for the times and customs.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Deploy the Backburners

Sometimes we have ideas that we just can’t stop to think about right now.  So we set them aside, to some dark corner of our minds, where they continue to grow.  I believe the idiom is “putting it on the back burner.” 

I have a fairly large back burner.  But this may not be unusual – for all I know, every one does.  As a writer, it is useful to look back there occasionally and see what’s cooking.

I’ve had a rant in my head for years asking why anyone would want to grow up in a nation that appears to value youth over age.  And another about how a global communications network will not create a world of peace and understanding and may, in fact, have the opposite impact.

One day, years ago, I’m writing this play and have a scene where I need conversation for an awkward dinner date between a man who needs to grow up a little and a woman who is a bit of a techie.  Out come the rants and the scene practically writes itself.  And the characters have something interesting and thoughtful to say.

After all, it’s stuff I thought about for years.

Of course, it doesn’t always work out that well.  Here’s a counter example:  I’ve had this idea for a play in which the characters trap a vampire in the basement, not realizing just how cruel and dangerous a creature they’ve cornered.  And I had this great speech, in which the vampire justifies her existence by claiming to be a living historical memory.  Great speech, with mythological references, poetic meter, and layers of metaphor.

When I finally get around to writing the play, however, the speech doesn’t fit.  It sounds too different from everything else in the play.  It sticks out, it spoils the rhythm, it looks like the author’s favorite pet doing an unnecessary cameo appearance.

So I had to cut it.  Had the damn thing for years, and it ends up on the cutting room floor.  So it goes.

It’s commonly held that works of art are expressions of the artist’s ideas and creativity.  But sometimes, for the end result to be a quality product, we don’t get to say everything we want to.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Concerning Dungeons and Sonnets

So I was designing a dungeon the other day (if you need to ask, the answer would  disappoint) using ready made architectural tiles.  It reminded me of writing sonnets.

Just using pen and paper for my map would have been faster and easier.  But the result would be less impressively three dimensional. 

The question has been asked – why, if your poem could be anything, would you accept the limits of the sonnet form? Why write a poem of exactly 140 syllables, no more, no less?  The answer is that sometimes limits force us to use our creativity.  Finding just the right word that fits the requirements of the sonnet means digging through the unused portion of your vocabulary.

The results – dungeon or sonnet – are different than your usual work.  And sometimes the results will surprise you.

And it is true of any art form.  Writing for the stage, for example, has very different limits than writing for a movie.  How we meet these challenges – well, that’s where the fun is.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Strange Reverses

Conventional writing wisdom tells us that dramatic interest is generated by placing characters in conflict.  I’m  not saying it isn’t true, but I’d like to mention a couple of effective techniques I’ve seen that run a little bit counter to the notion – The Reversal and the Optimistic Cliffhanger.

Readers and audiences are quite accustomed to the notion of conflict in stories – they expect to see their heroes in peril (for horror and adventure stories) or in some emotional, social, or moral turmoil.  But they also like to see conflict resolved.  And it’s fun when the resolution doesn’t occur quite when you’d expect.

The Reversal is an old literary device when the fortunes of the protagonist change suddenly and unexpectedly.  The cool bit is that it works when the change is in favor of our hero.  It works particularly well when our hero creates the change in fortune, so his or her actions save the day. 

Isn’t that what’s supposed to happen anyway?  Sure, but the key to the Reversal is that it happens at an unexpected time.  Also, the Reversal isn’t necessarily the point where everything is tied up nicely with a pretty bow on top – its the point where things turn in favor of the hero, who may still have a fair bit of work to do before all conflicts are resolved.  But now, for the first time in several pages, we’re looking forward to the resolution instead of dreading it.

Not wanting to give specific spoilers here, but the second Star Trek movie, Wrath of Khan includes a great reversal if you need an example.

There’s a newer, similar technique that I’ve observed primarily in serial entertainments such as TV shows and comic books.  It doesn’t have an official term that I’m aware of, so I’ll call it the Optimistic Cliffhanger.  In a traditional cliffhanger, the episode stops at the worst possible moment for the hero.  (Note that cliffhangers work in novels, too – look for them at the end of chapters.)

The Optimistic Cliffhanger occurs when the episode ends a few minutes later – just after the hero has escaped from the trap.  The dramatic tension that keeps the pages turning, that keeps us coming back for the next episode, is generated by the promise of what the hero is going to do next.  Instead of ending when the villain plunges the hero into the tank full of sharks, it ends with the hero soaking wet, heading after the villain and grinning, “Now it’s my turn!”

It is interesting to me that both of these techniques draw their power from the promise of resolution.  They form that dramatic points in which the hero starts to create the resolution of the story, the point where we as readers suddenly realize that success might actually be possible.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Points of Interest

The hero of your story has just arrived at a remote village.  The village serves some plot function – maybe it is a place for the hero to rest and recover, or learn something, or maybe it needs to be defended against hordes of killer penguins.

But aside from its plot function, it’s really just a village.

How to we make it something more?  The key here is providing points of interest to our audience.  Something to make the place real, to make the people of the village come alive.

First, there are the minor details that add up.  Does the village have interesting street names? Does it grow crops, raise horses, sell the best  household waste disposal robots in fifty parsecs?  Then there are the living details – maybe there’s a funeral going on when our hero arrives.  Or a romance going on between the farmer’s son and the blacksmith’s daughter.

What does any of this have to do with the advancement of the plot?  Absolutely nothing.  Which means there is a danger of spending too much time and attention on it.  But without something, the village is boring.

And authors never want to be boring.

Besides, some side detail may grow into something important.  These happy moments happen in writing.  It’s part of the creative process.  The blacksmith’s daughter may remind our hero of something important.  Or maybe the best household waste disposal robots in fifty parsecs are just what we need to deal with those pesky penguins.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Dialogue, or Talking about Talking

I gotta write more scripts.  I like the format.  When I first started writing on the bus, on my shiny new halfling-size laptop, the first thing I did was a short radio play.  Now, after struggling with the novel format, my blog is late this week because I’ve been happily writing a web-comic strip.

The radio play was especially fun because there was no stage action – the whole story had to be told in voice.  I like dialogue.  I hope I’m good with it.   And in scripts, dialogue is the primary way in which character is revealed.  And dialogue and action together pretty much make up the whole story.

In novels, the author can get inside the character’s head.  Thoughts, feelings, musings… all can be presented easily.  You’d think novel writing would therefore be easier – more tools for the author to build the tale. 

But there is something to be said for the challenge of working on a limited canvas. (Is a limited color palate a better analogy?)  It forces you to be deliberate, to make meaningful and powerful choices in order to get the best use out of the tools you’ve got.  Or, to continue the analogy, to use bold colors.

Even in the novel format, dialogue is a powerful tool.  I have noticed that good authors reveal new information in dialogue as well as in text.  Despite having access to a character’s thoughts, sometimes we don’t learn their conclusions until the character tells someone else.  More dramatic that way.

I think part of the appeal of dialogue is it’s how we learn about people in real life.  We judge others by what they say and do.  It’s all we’ve got, really.  So we learn from the time we’re children to decipher words and phrases, to listen for double meanings, to see when people’s words don’t add up, to decide who to believe.

Dialogue therefore commands our attention.  It’s our life.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Time Compression and Narration

I understand that a typical mistake made by amateur movie makers is showing too much establishing footage.  Filming a guy leaving his house, shutting his door, walking to his car, pulling out his keys, getting in his car, driving away, sitting in traffic, arriving at his destination.  Audiences only need to see that last bit – the arrival.  Maybe, if continuity is an issue, we can see him driving away from home.  But anything more is a waste of time and the viewers’ attention.

So I’m writing this supposedly short web comic script for my sister-in-law, and I’m still fighting the expanding page-count. I’m on page eight and I’ve finally gotten to the meat of the story.

One of the problems I had was having the main character arrive outside an apartment window while the next scene requires her to be inside.  The question is – do I need to show her climbing through the window?

I decided that entering the apartment was a necessary bit of continuity to avoid confusing the reader.  But it is an unfortunate necessity, using up page space and making my artist do more work.

The trick, it turns out, is making each panel do double duty.  So while the characters are doing uninteresting things like climbing through windows, I have them thinking (hopefully) interesting and revealing things.  Thank heaven for first person narration.

An interesting reversal actually occurs here – once I decide what information to reveal during these necessary transition panels, I have to make the panels large enough to contain the new data. 

It’s like the film maker above intentionally extending the driving sequence in order to make time for an important voice-over.  But that’s no longer a mistake – it’s an intentional control over the flow of time.  The movie takes time to think because the character does.

But none of this makes my script any shorter.

Friday, January 14, 2011

A Matter of Character

A writing friend of mine recently mentioned the old idea that the difference between story and plot is character.  Really, of course, it’s a matter of how the terms are defined – ask ten writers, you’ll probably get twelve definitions.

But the underlying point is valid.  I recently saw a good example in Disney’s latest princess movie, Tangled.

Without giving too much away, there is a scene where the lead character is emotionally conflicted.  She is happy about something she’s done, but unhappy about how she had to do it.

There is an entire scene devoted to her emotional conflict that does not advance the plot – that is, the sequence of events leading to the resolution of the story – at all.  Just the opposite, actually – the presence of this extra scene slows the advancement of events.

But it is a great scene.  It’s funny.  And it tells us about our princess and helps us care about her.  And it is by caring about her that we give a damn about the story.  ‘Cause otherwise it is just a sequence of events.

So I guess the best plot is the world falls short if it doesn’t happen to someone.  To look at it another way, perhaps a great sequence of events that don’t involve the audience with the characters should be called something other than a story.  Like a history, or a saga, or something.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

After what came before…

For today, a couple of unrelated thoughts based on my previous post.  If you need to, you can go back and read it. I’ll wait – the Internet is patient.

My first thought is that comic book format creates interesting challenges to pacing.  At the request of the person I am writing for, I’m trying to avoid too many words per panel.  I’m also trying to avoid too many panels per page.  Otherwise, you know, they get really small and cramped.

Unfortunately, the original plan also included not having too many pages of story as well.  And the way I’m working now, it takes five pages to move the story an inch.  I suppose economy of storytelling is an issue in any media.  Brevity, wit.  It’s a fun, but occasionally frustrating challenge.

My other thought was about the classification and demystification of magic that I ranted about in my previous post.  Particularly as it pertains to my work-not-so-much-in-progress, The Illusionist’s House. 

I’m thinking the solution may be to go ahead and let the people in the story try to classify magic.  Maybe even let them think they’ve succeeded.  And then have them be wrong.  Let them learn that some things defy pigeonholes.

The limits of what can be known is becoming a theme for the story anyway.