Alas, the end of May went like… well, the rest of May had. Teeth-grinding and stressful to the end. I’d been working on said post of accumulated wisdom, but it just didn’t hit a point where I felt it was quite clear enough. Not that anyone on the internet has ever taken anything at first glance or out of context, but I just wanted to be sure it said what I wanted it to say. Which meant it wasn’t done on Sunday, when I normally write the ranty blog posts. Or on Tuesday, when I tend to load them up.
So here’s an easy thing to look for. I used to do this… let’s say a fair amount in my early writing. I see it happen in other’s people’s writing—especially first big projects. And I see it happen all the time in low-budget B-movies that didn’t bother with, well, a script. It’s really common when actors start to ad-lib scenes. Enough so that I feel very comfortable saying it’s really common.
What is it? Well, wouldn’t you like to know. No, I don’t have to tell you. BECAUSE I’M IN CHARGE, THAT’S WHY! WELL THEN GO START YOUR OWN WRITING BLOG!!!
Okay, let’s just pause for a moment, all take a breath, and try this again…
NO, YOU DIE! YOU GO TO HELL AND YOU DIE!!!
If you spend any amount of time online, arguments almost feel like the default form of human interaction. Because let’s be honest, there are some folks out there who just want to argue. About anything. You like kittens? Of course you would. That’s exactly the kind of thing someone like you would like!
As we’ve all learned, these sort of arguments rarely go anywhere. The people starting it, well… they’re not really interested in opposing views or hearing a counter-argument. So these discussions often amount to a lot of yelling that goes nowhere. Everyone ends up more or less right where they started, position-wise. Nobody’s been convinced to hate kittens or stop carrying their AR-15 to the elementary school bus stop. So in retrospect… they’re kind of a waste of time.
When we’re writing, I think arguments are an easy form of dialogue. Lots of folks think shouting means conflict and tension and drama, so if all my characters are shouting at each other, well, my story must be filled with conflict and tension and drama. Right? Plus, wow, that just filled three pages. It must’ve been good.
So characters argue about a lot of really stupid stuff. Like, anything at anytime can set off an argument. And these irrational arguments go on and on, no matter what else is going on. There can be a kaiju stomping toward our car but the five of us will sit and argue for ten minutes about driving away vs getting out of the car and running away vs just sitting here because maybe we’re just imagining the kaiju, did you think of that?
No? Well that’s why I’M IN CHARGE!
I think a lot of the time when characters are arguing in a book or movie, it’s the writer trying to create a false sense of tension. Or just padding. Or both. Maybe consciously, maybe unconsciously.
Please note I said a lot of the time. Not all. This isn’t a blanket rule, and there are some fantastic examples out there of characters who have heated discussions in books and movies. Or who just, y’know, argue all the time. Because in any good story there’s going to be actual conflict and there are going to be things people have real, justified arguments about.
And, sometimes arguing can be funny. It can actually lighten the mood to see people start bickering over something really silly and irrelevant. Especially when we see the context of what they’re arguing about and where/ when they’ve decided to argue about it.
As of late, if I find my dialogue sliding into combative arguments, I try to step back. Look at the scene and the story as a whole, not just my brilliant and snarky dialogue exchanges. What else is going on right now? What’s the actual point of this moment? Does it make sense that these people would be arguing about this? Right now? Is this really driving anything forward?
Or are my characters just arguing to make it seem like there’s some sort of conflict going on? Is it a bunch of false drama that doesn’t really make sense when you consider the characters and what’s happening to them at the moment? Am I just boosting my page count?
So if you’ve got a two and a half page argument… maybe look at it again. See if it actually makes sense. And if it’s really doing anything for the story as a whole.
BECAUSE I SAID SO, THAT’S WHY!!!
Next time… well, next week’s my birthday, so I think I’d like to put on my old white beard and blather on about some life-experience wisdom type stuff. As I have in the past.
Wow. Are we halfway through the month again? That didn’t feel like it took long. Well, okay, the last one was kind of late, wasn’t it?
Anyway… let’s get to it.
The past few weeks have sucked. There’s been roadwork all around my house and actually right in front of my house. Like, the little jackhammer-Bobcat was fifteen feet from my office window. Ripping up all the landscaping in the parking strip I spent the past year or two working on. And the sidewalk. And the curb. And parts of the street. And the sidewalk across the street. That went on for, ha ha ha, well, it’s been two weeks and technically it’s still going on, it’s just moved far enough up the street that I can almost blot out the sound by cranking up my earbuds.
Plus, the neighbors on one side are getting a new roof, so those guys have had an air compressor running between our two houses. And on the other side, two houses down, we think someone’s flipping the house and they’ve got a whole crew in there doing stuff. Loud stuff.
And on top of all that… there’s a neighborhood cat we’ve been calling Vincent (one of his ears is kind of mangled) who decided our place might make a good full time home. Which we weren’t against (he’s a cool and handsome man-about-town), but he kept getting beat up really bad by another cat (the Orange Whip) who passes through once or twice a day. So then he was slashed up. And lost a lot of fur. And a lot of weight. And injured one of his legs bad enough he was just dragging it behind him. We kept trying to help and cater to him, but last week we realized he’d hit the point where he wasn’t going to recover from any of this. So, with great regret and a lot of tears, we made sure he didn’t suffer any more.
TL;DR—the first weeks of May have not been very productive. There’s a fair argument to be made they’ve been a bit damaging on the sleep/ stress/ mental health fronts. Actually, no argument. The past few weeks have sucked hard.
With all that in mind…
As I type this I’m 212 pages into the rewrites/edits of GJD. A little more than halfway in this single-spaced draft. My early readers caught a lot of things that I definitely need to tweak, and offered a few comments that made me want to adjust a few more. Fortunately, it’s almost all the kind of thing that once you see the problem, you know how to fix the problem. I think there’s a good chance I can still have this done by the end of the month, when I promised it to my agent.
Which means it’s still on schedule to get to you.
On the flip side, that last short story I owed an anthology did not get done during these weeks, and I’m probably going to be getting that one to the editor right under the wire. An unfortunate but necessary reshuffling of priorities.
That’s one aspect of this whole professional writing thing I don’t see folks talk about that often. Sometimes… life happens. You end up moving a little slow because of stuff at home. Maybe you need to take a personal day or three. And when you do, hopefully your boss is one of those cool, progressive bosses who doesn’t glorify working yourself to death or berate you for missing a day or needing time off. Hopefully they understand there’s more to life than work and sometimes… work needs to be flexible.
This is especially true if your boss is you. Yeah, there’s always going to be deadlines or something that just can’t move. But if there’s a ton going on in your life… don’t make things worse for yourself if you don’t have to. Be that understanding boss you always wish you had.
Cool Stuff I’ve Been Watching— Barry (only the first season, no spoilers!!), The Why Files, still enjoying Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur
Cool Stuff I’ve Been Reading— Walking the Dusk by Mike Robinson
Cool New Toys – We’re closing in on my birthday, so I’m not allowed to get myself anything. Well, I try to restrain myself, anyway. But I still picked up a T’Challa Starlord (from What If… ) on eBay because it was a fantastic price. Also another Talos/ Skrull I found at a local used toy store. And Morphonauts sent me a few of their beautiful resin ExTerminator figures.
Not a great surprise, I’m sure, but I follow a lot of writers on social media. Other authors, screenwriters of television and movies, some game writers, some journalists, an essayist or three. I love reading their random thoughts about writing-related things. Because, as I’ve mentioned here once or thrice or dozens of times, there are always other ways to do things. New angles to approach problems from. Different ways to catch problems before they go too far or grow too big.
And that of course brings us to Q getting punched in the face on Deep Space Nine and Sherlock Holmes living in New York.
There’s a screenwriter named Robert Hewitt Wolfe who (odds are) worked on at least one of your favorite genre shows. A while back on Twitter he did a list of 25 things he’d learned about writing for television. It’s a really fantastic little thread and you should check it out. A bunch of it applies to storytelling in general, not just television.
One particular bit stood out to me. Wolfe mentions giving the good lines to your main characters, not the dayplayers—what you’d probably think of as the guest stars. The folks who are just there on set for a day or two of this particular episode. He also adds on that your main characters should definitely be the ones getting the last line before the show cuts to commercial. Which all makes sense, if you think about it.
But I think this applies in a greater sense, too. My main characters should be the ones doing things. They should get the funny lines, yeah, but they should also be the ones taking the risks. They should be the ones solving deadly puzzles and and capturing the scorpions and working up their courage to ask out Dinah from accounting. Nobody watches a show (or picks up a book) thinking “wow, I hope that cashier is a lot smarter than our protagonist, because there’s no way Yakko’s getting out of this on his own…”
This really sums up what was wrong with so many of the B movies I used to watch during Saturday geekery. They didn’t know who they were supposed to be focused on. They’d give the cool lines, the big fight, the horrifying death, or the dramatic sacrifice to… well, anyone except one of the main characters.
And that means all these things are immediately diminished because they’re not happening to people we care about. I mean, sure, on a basic human level we care that the mutant landshark just chomped Hiker #3 into bloody chunks but honestly… did it get any reaction from you? Maybe a chuckle? Definitely not any concern or horror. Hiker #3 was pretty much just there to die. I mean, if they’d killed Phoebe… holy crap, can you imagine?
Maybe even more to the point, if my supporting characters are the ones being clever, being brave, and getting things done… what are my main characters doing? Are they just standing there being less interesting? Less active? Hell, they’re not even pushing the plot along by dying. If the landshark killed Phoebe, we’d be screwed right now. But Hiker #3? My main characters don’t even know he exists. He’s somewhere on the other side of the forest, barely on the fringes of our story. His death is irrelevant.
And, yeah, sure, maybe it’s an ensemble piece. Maybe I’m writing a huge epic with twenty main characters. My WIP, the thing I’ve been calling GJD, has over half a dozen characters in it I’d consider protagonists. But even then… I’ve got my heroes and I’ve got everyone else. In any given scene, it should be one of said heroes doing things, noticing things, reasoning things out.
It’s not exactly uncommon in my rough drafts to have a scene or a chapter end in a way that just doesn’t feel quite right. Maybe the beat’s there, but it’s just not landing the way I want it to. And more often than not, when I step back and look at it, I realize the problem’s usually that the beat’s landing with the wrong person. I’ve let someone else—someone we’re not invested in—make the big reveal or get in that cool last line.
So as you’re going through your manuscript, take a look at who’s talking. Who’s doing stuff. Who’s drawing the reader’s attention with their dialogue and their actions. Because it should be main characters. Not always, sure, but the majority of the time… yeah. And if it’s not them, maybe I need to reconsider who’s talking. Or who my hero is.