July 17, 2009 / 4 Comments

The Challenge Round

Sorry for the slight delay. Stupid work with their stupid assignments that let me pay my stupid rent…


Speaking of things getting in the way, a common writing term is the obstacle. It’s what stands between your characters and whatever it is they want. While opinions vary on the topic, in my opinion an obstacle is slightly different from a conflict because obstacles tend to be exterior, while it’s very possible for conflicts to be interior. I prefer to use the term challenge, personally. I’ve found that thinking about “obstacles” tends to guide the mind solely onto physical impediments, like parts of an obstacle course. While this isn’t technically wrong, it does tend to result in a lot of the same things.

There are tons of different things people can want, for a number of different reasons. They can want that foreign prisoner back in America. You can want to find the Ark of the Covenant before the Nazis do. To get that alien implant out of their skull. Or to tell Phoebe O’Brien from sixth-period English you think she’s the most beautiful person you’ve ever known. These are all solid goals.

Likewise, there are even more things that can be between these characters and their goals.

A few tips on challenges…

A challenge must exist

Yeah, this sounds like a basic one, I know, but it’s surprising how often I see stuff where characters just stroll through a story with minimal effort. Looking for a clue to that mystery? There’s one over there. Need a boyfriend or girlfriend? Not any more. Villain waaayyyyy outclasses you? Good thing they told you about their Achilles heel and then left it open and exposed. This sort of thing shows up in fiction and scripts far, far more than you’d like to believe.

There needs to be some sort of challenge between your characters and their goals. If there isn’t, they would’ve accomplished these goals already. If I want a soda, I go and get one from the fridge– that’s it. Hardly the stuff great stories are made from, because there’s no challenge. If I want to drink my soda from a Faberge egg while Phoebe massages my feet… that’ll require a bit more effort on my part.

A challenge needs a reason to be confronted

If your characters are going to take on a challenge, they need a reason to do it. A real reason. Nobody sneaks or fights their way onto an enemy base just for the heck of it. They’re not here because there wasn’t anything else to do on Thursday night, but because millions of lives depend on the information this prisoner has and the enemy is torturing it out of him. You don’t tell Phoebe she’s beautiful for the heck of it, you tell her because you’ve wanted to for months and never worked up the nerve and now your parents are moving and you’ve only got two weeks of school left to let her know how you feel.

A big trick here is to make sure this reason is really there. It may be obvious in your head why the characters are going to undertake this challenge, but is it that clear on paper? This also holds for less physical things like Phoebe-confrontation, where the audience needs to understand why talking to her is such a big deal for this character.

A challenge has to be daunting

That base has over a hundred armed guards, attack dogs, barbed wire, starlight-scope cameras, and a minefield along the north perimeter. And if you think that sounds rough, Phoebe always has two or three friends with her, which means you’ll have to figure out a way to get her away from them, but they’re still going to know what you’re talking to her about. Characters should never want to deal with a challenge, because let’s be honest– we’d all love it if more things were just handed to us. That enemy agent. The alien brain implant. Phoebe’s heart (emotionally speaking).

Much as a challenge needs to exist, it needs to be something that gives the character (and the audience) pause, or else it isn’t really a challenge. Even John Carter, greatest swordsman on two worlds, would occasionally look at the odds he was facing and say “Oh…crap.”

Well, he was always a bit more eloquent than that, but you get the point.

A challenge cannot be impossible

If you’ve ever watched a boxing match, or any sporting event, you’ve probably noticed they’re evenly matched. NFL teams don’t take on pee-wee football teams. Rarely do you see someone like Vin Diesel beating on a person with a Woody Allen-esque physique. Well, not outside of high school, anyway…

The most boring stories tend to be the ones where the protagonists have no chance whatsoever of meeting the challenge. If you’ve ever watched a horror movie where the killer is merciless, unstoppable, and inescapable… well, that gets pretty dull after the second or third kill, doesn’t it? One of the reasons Jason Voorhees was always terrifying is that he never ran, he just sort of… marched (well, in the original films, anyway). You always had this sense that someone should be able to get away from Jason. Maybe if they could go a little faster…

The other risk to be wary here is if the challenge is completely impossible and your protagonist pulls it off anyway, it can look unbelievable and knock your audience out of the story.

A challenge needs a reason to exist

A combination of the first two points. If you’ve ever seen Galaxy Quest, you probably remember the mashing hallway which–as Sigourney Weaver loudly points out– serves no purpose whatsoever. We can probably all think of a book or movie where, for no reason at all, an obstacle just popped out of nowhere. Or perhaps it was there all along, but you couldn’t figure out why if your life depended on it. That’s false drama, and it just weakens writing.

Challenges have a purpose. They’re characters in their own right, or maybe obstacles other characters have (for one reason or another) set in your protagonist’s way. One of Phoebe’s friends can’t be a queen bitch just because the writer needs a bitchy character to thwart our love struck hero. Why would Phoebe hang around with someone like that? Think about why they’re doing this, and if you don’t have a real reason, stop for a couple minutes and re-think this particular challenge.

A challenge should be unexpected

This one’s not ironclad, but I’d still lean heavily towards it. If your characters are prepared, well-equipped, well-rested, and waiting for conflict, it’s not quite the same as when its sprung on them and they have to make do. It’s really cool to see the guys deal with sneaking onto the base, but it’s even cooler when they get there and what the #&$%!! Are those motion sensors? Why didn’t we know about those? Okay, everyone stay calm, here’s what we’re going to do…

A small bonus of the unexpected challenge is that it often gives your characters a chance to look clever. When they beat the unexpected challenge (even by the skin of their teeth) it makes them all the more likeable.

A challenge needs a resolution

If we see the set up, we have to see it resolved somehow. As Chekhov once said, if we see a phaser on the bridge in act one, we need to see it fire in act three. The squad needs to make it onto that base or die trying or at least they have to decide they can’t make it and that prisoner isn’t worth it. Once we, as writers, present a challenge to the audience it can’t be forgotten or ignored. We can’t spend the first quarter of our story pining for Phoebe and then never, ever address those feelings again.

Next week might be a bit tight again, as I’m heading into deadlines. But if all goes well, I’ll be here on time on Thursday. Don’t get me wrong, I’d much rather be working on this than some of the assignment I have.

Actually, that’s what I wanted to talk about next week. Not getting me wrong.

Until then, get some writing of your own done.

March 21, 2009 / 1 Comment

No Exceptions. None. Usually.

A week or three back I was browsing over the responses I get here. Luckily there’s only six or seven of you reading this, and I’m sure you’re all busy writing your own stuff, so it didn’t take long.

Anyway, I noticed an interesting thing. One of the most common forms of response here was the “Ahhhh, but…” They weren’t as emphatic or strongly worded as some of the ones you often find on most message boards, but they were there. Salt and peppered throughout the ranty blog.

If you can’t figure it, the “Ahhhh, but…” response is when someone counters a point with contradictory information. For example, I could say “Writing a blog will never help you get a film deal,” and someone could leap forward and say “Ahhhh, but isn’t that just what happened to Diablo Cody, writer of Juno? Not so smart after all, are you, Mister-wise-writer-guy?”

In even simpler words, the “Ahhhh, but…” response is when people point to the exception in an attempt to disprove the rule. Usually, they’re doing this to show that someone else did it the easy way, so we can’t fault them for trying to do it the easy way as well.

Now, let’s be clear on one thing—there are always exceptions to the rule. Always. Anyone who tells you that something is 100%, never-question-it always wrong can be ignored. Especially if they shriek “no exceptions!!”

Here’s the catch… exceptions to the rule are very, very rare. Exceptionally rare, you could say. That’s why they’re the exception and not the rule. For every person who sold the first draft of the first novel they wrote, there are millions of people who did not. Yeah, Kevin Smith got into Hollywood with a successful, low-budget indie film, but tens of thousands of folks have tried the same trick with no results. And, yes, Diablo Cody made a screenwriting career out of her blog—and that’s one out of how many blogs on the internet? One out of ten million? Fifty million? More?

That’s why most people trying to give you useful information, like myself, tell you to stick with all the established rules. It’s a longer, harder, and more frustrating path, but it’s still your best bet at success. Sure, I could sound a lot more positive and cheerful a lot of the time. I could say everyone’s a special snowflake, don’t worry about doing things wrong, and we should just do what feels good because we’ll all get published or produced some day. The overwhelming odds are, though, that I’d be doing all of you a disservice with such statements.

So, here’s my bit of advice for you, and it’s one I hope you’ve seen underlying most of the stuff I’ve said here since the first post you may have read.

The best thing you can do is assume you are not the exception to the rule. No matter how clever, how witty, how perfect your writing is, do not think of yourself as the one person who gets to ignore all the established standards. The absolute worst thing you can do is scoff at the rules and think they don’t apply to you. No matter how vastly superior your work is, always consider yourself working from the same level as everyone else.

The reason you should assume this is because the person reading your work is going to assume it. Nobody goes to a Friday the 13th film thinking it’s going to have an Oscar-winning metaphor for the Israel-Palestine conflict in it. You don’t pick up a Stephen King book for a tearjerker romance. And, personally, I’d be a bit shocked if Charlie Gibson decided to perform the ABC Evening News as an opera some night. We all have certain expectations we’ve built up, and these expectations all tend to fall in line with the rules.

Does that mean all these things won’t happen or can’t be done? Not at all. Your writing may be so utterly, mind-bogglingly spectacular that no one notices the abundant typos. The structure could be so rock-hard the reader will forgive and forget those atrociously dull opening pages. It’s even possible the idea is so fiendishly, unbelievably clever that nobody will pick up on the fact that every character is a paper-thin cut out carbon-copied from the cast of Heroes (not first season Heroes, mind you… I’m talking about fourth season Heroes)

However, here’s the one thing you can absolutely count on. The moment we notice that Jason Voorhees is now dressed in the colors of Hamas, see that Camp Crystal Lake has been bought out by a wealthy Hassidic group as a spiritual retreat, and read all this through a forest of misspellings and misused words… oh, at that moment we’re all going to groan. Our collective eyes will roll and the thought will cross all our minds—Dear God, I should probably just give up on this right now.

That’s what you’re fighting against when you want to be the exception to the rule. Your audience. They’ve seen attempts to break the rules again and again and again, and the overwhelming majority of these attempts have been simply awful. Remember, the exceptions are rare. Very rare. So when you veer away from the rules, everyone is going to go with the numbers and assume your work is simply awful, too.

In which case, it’s only throwing gas on the fire if you just swaggered in, tossed down your manuscript, and announced it to be a work of staggering genius. Those two things combined will pretty much guarantee your manuscript goes in the large pile on the left, regardless of how good your writing may get around page thirty or so.

A nice, simple rule of thumb. If at any single point you find yourself questioning if something matters—assume it does. Does my main character need to be developed more than this paragraph? Will a reader care that I misspelled forty or fifty words? Do I need to make that part of the story clearer? Should I bother to look up the exact format rules for this?

Your default answer for all of these questions needs to be yes.

Again, this doesn’t mean it can’t be done, and there’s always that chance someone might sit through Friday the 13th Part XII: Dredel of Death and walk out saying “Wow… you know, I never looked at the Middle East in those terms before. It’s so clear now how foolish we’ve all been.” I mean, forget Oscars, we’re talking about a Nobel Peace Prize for Jason this time around. It’s hard for established writers to pull off that sort of thing, though, so aspirants really need to be aware of the very, very steep climb ahead of them if they go in thinking the standards don’t apply to them.

You shouldn’t be scared to do something new, because if you break the rules—break them well, mind you—you’ll get noticed and rewarded for it.

Just remember that a lot of people break the rules because they don’t know what they’re doing… and you don’t want to get lumped in with them.

Next week, we’ll discuss the fact that not all explosions are exciting, and a great deal of drama is not dramatic.

Until then, go write.

August 6, 2008

The Insanity Defense

I blabbed on last time about characters. This time I wanted to scribble a few thoughts on motivation. To be specific, one less-than-desirable kind of motivation that crops up all over the place. While it’s most noticeable in films and television, you can also find it in books, and in several graphic novels.

I’ve come to call it the insanity defense, and like most times you’ve heard this phrase invoked, it’s still a cheap cop-out. The insanity defense is when the police detective, the brainy college girl, the private investigator, the spunky reporter, Shag, Scooby, and the rest of the gang have spent the entire story chasing a killer. It’s not always a killer, mind you. Might be a serial rapist, a stalker with hopes for the big leagues, something like that. Anyway, they run down clues, have close calls, and spend the whole time trying to make sense, one way or another, of what’s been happening. And finally, at the end, the mysterious killer is cornered and his secret layed bare for all to see.

He’s insane.

Yup. Mad as a hatter. That’s why the killer kills people.

He’s insane.

That’s why he wears the mask, laughs at the sight of blood, and played all those mind games with the police. It’s also why he disguised himself as a woman, left the poetry-based clues, used only a 1967-issue fire axe to commit the decapitations, cries for his mommy when he gets shot, and only listens to punk music. It’s also why he’s able to ignore being shot seventeen times and stabbed nine, walk through an inferno, slip through holes smaller than shoeboxes, hold his breath for twelve minutes underwater, move faster than the speed of sound, and apparently teleport just by moving back into a dark corner of any given room.

He’s insane.

I’m not actually picking on any one real novel or film, mind you. Although I could pull up a quick list of at least a dozen stories I’ve read or seen in the past two years that fall back on two or three of these points. In at least half of them, the insane killer is a she, by the way.

This is probably the weakest motivation a character can have, because all it does is show the audience you couldn’t be bothered to work out any real motivation. Why did he do all of this? He’s insane. How did she manage to do that? Well, she’s insane. That explains everything, right?

Well… doesn’t it?

I know I’m in the minority, but I’ve never liked the movie Se7en for exactly this reason. As the screenplay by Andrew Kevin Walker progresses, the killer’s methods and motives become more and more vague. John Doe (played by Kevin Spacey) goes from finding people who exemplify a sin and killing them, to making people exemplify a sin and killing them, and then it finally all resolves in a bizarre double-twist suicide-by-cop. It’s one thing to find a grossly obese man who eats twenty-five pounds of groceries a day and say he embodies gluttony. It’s another to decapitate a man’s wife, show him the head, and then try to claim he embodies wrath because he kills you for it. There’s no consistency in his method (and thus, his motive) and this glaring inconsistency, in my mind, overpowers the powerful performances by Morgan, Brad, and Gwenyth.

Now, this isn’t to say insanity is a bad thing in fiction. It just isn’t a get-out-of-jail-free card (or, as the fancy folks say, carte blanche) that lets you do whatever you want. Novels and films are filled with characters on the brink of insanity, or well past it. The thing is—they’re still developed characters, not just a catch-all excuse for an explanation. Mrs. Rochester, Hannibal Lecter, Renfield, Tyler Durden, and of course the Joker. All of these folks have thought processes that don’t quite jibe with the general public. However, they also all have distinct personalities and limitations. We’d all call foul if Hannibal Lector slipped out of a straight jacket by force of will, if Renfield survived falling ten stories and was still fighting, or if the Joker began butchering people and eating them with fava beans. Insanity doesn’t make them superhuman, not does it make them completely irrational. To quote one madman, “Just because I’m crazy doesn’t mean I’m stupid.”

If you’re just going to use insanity as an easy excuse for whatever your character needs to do, don’t be surprised if people if people put your writing on par with April Fool’s Day, Friday the 13th, or some other bad 80’s horror film.