January 18, 2018 / 5 Comments

Down to Basics

            It’s come up once or thrice that I’m a lover of bad movies.  Partly for the laughing aspect, partly because I think you can learn as much from bad storytelling as you can from good.  Partly because I need to justify my drinking, and some of these movies make it reeeeeally easy.
            A while back I tossed out a list of really basic things a lot of these movies messed up.  Film school 101-level stuff that people were getting wrong.  Even though some of them went to film school.  And I wondered if it might be possible to do something with stories in general.
            Kristi Charish (of the fantastic Kincaid Strange series—book two coming soon) recently mentioned this idea (for a different topic) in a much better way—the invisible handshake.  It’s sort of an unofficial, unspoken contract between the author and the reader. If you’re picking up my book, there are certain automatic assumptions you’re making about what I’ll be providing you with, and I should be meeting these assumptions.  Basic things about plot and structure and character that are just… well, basic.
            At the end of last year I read a book that fumbled that handshake.   Fumbled it bad.  It was like that awkward moment with someone at the end of the night where you’re not sure how to say goodbye, so the two of you make a bunch of half-moves toward different things.  Do we hug?  Shake hands?  Peck on the cheek?  Write an awful book? 
            We’ve all been there, right?
            I ranted a bit about said book on Twitter, but even then I was thinking I should revisit a lot of those issues here.  And while said book was very rant-worthy, I’ve been .trying to keep things a bit more on the positive side here.
            So, a few general things I need to keep in mind when I’m writing.  I’ve mentioned most of them before, but I thought a general, all–at-once
            First, I need to be clear who my main character is.  If I spend the first four chapters of my book with Yakko… everyone’s going to assume Yakko’s the main character.  This book’s clearly about him, right?  So when he vanishes for the next seven chapters… well, people are going to keep wondering when we’re getting back to him.  Because he’s the main character.
            Now, a lot of books have a big cast of characters.  An ensemble, as some might say.  That’s cool.  But if my book’s going to be spending time between a bunch of characters, I need to establish that as soon as possible.  If the first three or four chapters are all the same character, it’s only natural my readers will assume that’s going to be the norm in this book.
            Secondis that I need to keep my point of view consistent.  This kinda goes with the first point—being clear who my main character is.  Even with a third person POV, we’re usually looking over a specific person’s shoulder, so to speak. Which means that character can’t walk away and leave us behind.  Likewise, we can’t start over Wakko’s shoulder and then driiiiiiiiiiiiiift over so we’re suddenly looking over Dot’s.
            Again, it’s cool to switch POV and there’s nothing wrong with it, but I need to make it clear to my readers that I’m doing it. If they start seeing things from new angles or hearing new pronouns, it’s going to knock them out of the story and break the flow.  That’s never a good thing.
            Thirdthing I need to do is be clear who my actual characters are.  Who’s part of the story and who’s just… well, window dressing.  If my two protagonists go out to dinner, there’s going to be other people in the restaurant.  But I shouldn’t describe them all. Or name them all
            Names and descriptions are how I tell my reader a character’s going to be important and worth remembering.  Three paragraphs of character details means “Pay attention to this one.”  So if I’m telling the reader to keep track of people for no reason, I’m wasting their time and my word count.

            I want to note a specific way people do this, too.  I’m calling it “describe and die” (trademark 2018).  This is when the author introduces a character, spends five or six pages describing them, their history, their goals, their loves, their life—and then kills them.  We’ve all seen this, yes?  Here’s Yakkoshiro, a twenty-nine year-old salaryman who spends all his free income on Gundam models and always wears long sleeves to the office because he won’t stop wearing his fathers watch, even though nobody wears watches anymore and looking behind the times like that could hurt his chances at a promotion so… long sleeves, never rolled up, even when the air conditioner dies (which happens a lot). And tonight he has a date with the beautiful woman from the Gundam store, who he’s exchanged nervous banter with for months now and, oh, he’s dead.  A kaiju stepped on him.  Now, back to our heroes…

            Don’t do that.
            Fourthis that I need to have an actual plot before I start focusing on subplots.  What’s the big, overall story of my book?  If it’s about Wakko trying to save the family car wash, I should probably get that out to my readers before I start the romance subplot or the backstabbing partner subplot or the Uncle Gus has cancer and wants to travel around the world before he dies subplot.  After all, they picked up my book because the back cover said it was about saving the family car wash or escaping that Egyptian tomb.  I should be working toward that first—meeting those expectations.
            If I’m spending more time on a subplot than the actual plot, maybe I need to revisit what my story’s actually about.
            Fifth, closely related to four, is that my subplots should relate to the main story somehow.  They should loop around, tie back in to the main plot, or at least have similar themes so we see the parallels.  If I can pull out a subplot out of my story and it doesn’t change the main story in the slightest… I probably need to reconsider it.
            And if it’s an unrelated subplot to an unrelated subplot… okay, seriously, I’m wasting pages at that point.  Not to mention this all starts getting, well, distracting.  I don’t want to kill whatever tension I’m building in my main plot by putting it on hold for eight or nine pages while I deal with… well, something completely unrelated.  It’s like switching channels in the middle of a television show. Nobody’s saying what’s on the other channel is bad, but it doesn’t have anything to do with the show we’re trying to watch.
            Okay, this is an odd one.
            Remember how much fun it is when you meet someone you’re interested in and there’s all these fascinating little mysteries about them?  We want to learn all their tics and hidden secrets.  Where are they from?  What’d they study in school?  What movies do they like?  How’d they develop a taste for that?  Why do they have that accent?  Where’d they get that scar?  Just how big is that tattoo?
            But… we don’t want to learn those secrets from a book report.  We want to hang out with these people, talk over drinks, go on road trips, maybe stay up all night on the phone or on the couch.  It’s how we get to know real people… and it’s how we want to learn about characters, too. Pages and pages of backstory often makes characters less interesting because it leaves me with nothing to reveal about them.  It kills that sense of mystery, because there’s nothing left to learn about them.
            There’s nothing wrong with me having all that backstory, but I don’t need to use it all in book.
            And I definitely don’t need to reveal it all in the first two or three chapters.
            Seventhand last is flashbacks.  Flashbacks are a fantastic narrative device, but they get used wrong a lot.  And when they’re wrong… they’re brutal. A clumsy flashback can kill a story really fast.
            A flashback needs to be advancing the plot.  Or increasing tension. Or giving my readers new information.  In a great story, it’s doing more than one of these things. Maybe even all of them.
            But a flashback that doesn’t do any of these things… that’s not a good flashback.  That’s wrong.  And it’ll bring things to a grinding halt and break the flow.
            Seven basic things to keep in mind while I’m writing my story.
            Now, as always, none of these are hard-fast, absolute rules.  If I hire a pastry chef for my bakery, there’s always a possibility this particular one doesn’t use a whisk.  There can always be an exception.  But I should be striving to be the exception, not just assuming everyone will be okay with me not following all the standards. My readers are going in with certain expectations, and I need to be doing honestly amazing things to go against them.  
            Because if that same pastry chef also doesn’t use a spatula…  Or butter… Or flour…
            Again—the invisible handshake (trademark K. Charish, 2018). 
            It’s a legally binding contract in forty-two states and four Canadian provinces.
            Next time, I’d like to tell you about something that happened off-camera on a TV show I worked on years ago.
            Until then, go write   

0 replies on “Down to Basics”

Two comments occur:
1. The game Assassin's Creed 3 (spoilers, I guess) starts you off as Haytham, and basically all the tutorial on being an assassin is done with you playing Haytham. (Yes, yes, technically you're playing as someone else playing Haytham, whatever). And then suddenly in a massive twist you find out Haytham is actually one of the bad guys (yes, I know AC has tried, especially with Rogue and Unity, to try and portray the Templars as just the opposition, not necessarily evil, but they have spent way too many games portraying them as evil to get away with that), and you spend the rest of the game playing as Connor. It wasn't so much that they switched main character though – the biggest issue is that compared to Haytham, Connor is BORING. If you're going to set up a twist like that, and switch main character/POV, please make sure that the "correct" main character is the more interesting one.

2. One of my favourite novels ever is Lord of Light (Roger Zelazny). That book intentionally obscures the order so that, at least on first reading, you may not even be aware you're reading a flashback. Would you regard that as a successful exception to the flashback rule?

1. I guess that's fair. 🙂

2. Oh you must. If you like Zelazny at all, this is his masterpiece. I am a massive fan of everything the man ever wrote, but I would cheerfully burn it all if it was necessary to get Lord of Light.

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